Monthly Archives: July 2010

Naked Taylor Lautner butters Lindsay Lohan’s buns in ‘Jersey Shore’ sandwich shop scandal!

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten really hit me where I live today with this nostalgic essay titled “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.”

As you might surmise, Weingarten isn’t in the habit of going all TMZ over celebrity hooha. No, my fellow scribe is actually lamenting the death of the well-wrought headline in the age of Search Engine Optimization.

SEO, as you may know, means using words and phrases and hidden tags that influence (or just plain trick) browsers and Internet searchbots into serving up your chunk of text versus someone else’s. If you were to google “sausage party,” you could thank SEO for whipping up a piping hot batch of content that’s a far, far cry from the Bavarian festival you were hoping to take your Granny to.

The headline, as my fellow journalism students might recall, is that cherished cherry at the top of the editorial sundae. In the glory days, the headline used to give us evening copydesk sloggers a chance to leave our own stamp on the next day’s paper. Not only that, but headlines were a puzzle that begged to be cracked like a Rubik’s Cube. It had a number of decks (measuring lines deep), it often had a subhead, and it had a character count — an arcane system of measuring width: a teensy i was only 1 unit but a capital W was 3, for example. Combined with the wacky restrictions of headline-ese, a quirky grammatical tense called “historical present,” penning a headline was a daily challenge akin to shooting a wadded-up paper ball into a garbage can across the room.

I loved this. I loved the purity of distilling the story to its essence, with wry wit when possible, and doing so while cracking the crazy calculus of the headline’s space restrictions. Especially challenging were the headlines that had to fit in the width of a single column, and when you mastered a good one of those … ooh, the chills!

My favorite of these one-column wonders was a headline I worked on for the Daily Northwestern in 1991. The story was about the dropping of Coca-Cola products from campus dining rooms, and their replacement with Pepsi:

Coke iced;
Pepsi is it

Bah, you kids probably don’t remember the “Coke is it” ad campaign. Still, funny stuff! I won an Illinois college journalism award thingy for this one, which is too bad, because I’m pretty sure this headline was a group effort. Cheryl Dahle, if you’re reading this, I’ve always suspected this joke was more yours than mine.

I am quite sure I alone wrote the zinger for the story about the sudden bee infestation on campus:

Bee, where
is thy sting?
All over NU

And my favorite of all time? On Oct. 26, 1991, I watched my hard-luck Wildcats upend No. 17 Illinois on the rain-soaked Dyche Stadium turf. Overjoyed fans (though not me, ’cause I was in the band and had to behave) rushed the field, ripped down the goalposts, and marched them down Central Avenue to relegate them to the waters of Lake Michigan. The Oct. 28 front page bore my 60-point handiwork:

Cats win; goalposts swim

Web-only writers will never feel this thrill. For them, a headline is and will forever be a marketing concept, geared to drawing as many eyeballs and fooling as many search tools as the technology allows. There’s a certain poetry in that puzzle, too, I suppose, but it’s cynical.

In a world where

FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD (New York Daily News, 1975)




Harvard beats Yale, 29-29 (Harvard Crimson, 1968)

can exist, I can hold hope that their inspiration may draw us back to a time when a headline meant something more than statistic in a marketing report.

For those philistines who disagree, Weingarten provides the perfect coda:

I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you’d see it: “A digital salute to online journalism.” I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.

I bet it’ll read “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”

Lady Gaga.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Least Airbender: How better writing could have saved my favorite franchise

I try not to use this space to complain about media I didn’t like. With just an exception or two, I try to focus on what’s good. And when I can’t do that, to focus on fixing what didn’t work.

Even so, I’m biting my knuckle here. See, the Internet doesn’t need another blogger telling you “The Last Airbender” is not a very good film. But here I am. And my knuckle is starting to hurt.

I love, I mean love, the original Nickelodeon cartoon that aired from 2005 to 2008. It’s a heroic quest as epic as Tolkien, while still being funny and approachable for kids and adults. If you have any interest at all in storytelling, and have the kind of open mind that permits guilt-free enjoyment of a “children’s cartoon,” I encourage you to watch the series. You’ll find far more than a kiddie cartoon.

But the recently released movie by M. Night Shyamalan … it … it saddens me. All the wonderful characters from the cartoon get Hollywooded into uninteresting shadow puppets on a journey of checklist activities. These characters, you guys, ohmigod, they are so well written in the cartoon! They’re rich and layered and funny and, and, and …

Right. Not complaining.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman parses what he think went wrong with “Airbender” in the July 23 issue. He calls out the directing by Shyamalan (“a deeply derivative filmmaker”) and the acting. He even faults the source cartoon (“a veritable trash compactor of familiar tropes”) —which tells us this guy can’t be trusted.

He is wrong, of course, about the cartoon and about the problem: The chief culprit here is the writing. It failed to live up to the richness of the source material. Let’s channel this angst into exploring how we, as writers, could have saved this movie. What follows is the first in a series … yes, a series. That’s how important this is to me. (And how much work there is to be done.)

Today’s Lesson: Cons and Prologues

On the “Lord of the Rings” DVDs, director Peter Jackson talks about the great debate at the studio level about whether or not the first movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” should open with a prologue with a narrative voiceover.

A voiceover is a controversial and often-misused device for cramming a lot of information into a story. The upside is it conveys, all at once, the details essential to understanding the setting. The downside is that it enables sloppy storytelling — the classic failure of the “show, don’t tell” rule.

Voiceovers mean the storyteller has given up on revealing the details of his world through subtler means such as dialog or character actions.

In the case of the“Airbender” cartoon, an initial voiceover tells us about a world with as much complexity and governing backstory as Lord of the Rings. What we learn in this voiceover:

  1. Humans can manipulate the four elements of air, earth, water and fire.
  2. One human at a time is the “Avatar” who can manipulate all four elements at once and who maintains “balance” on a global scale.
  3. The current Avatar, an airbender, disappeared 100 years ago.
  4. Meanwhile, the Fire Nation has waged war against the other three nations for most of those hundred years.

Whew. That’s a lot of info, but clearly the storyteller needs to jumpstart our context in this big setting if he hopes to get on with his little slice of story he wants to share with us.

This is the thinking Peter Jackson settled on, too. He opened “Fellowship” with a seven-minute prologue skimming the millennium-spanning history of the One Ring. But what a whopper of a seven minutes: duplicity among the demigods, epic war, improbable reversals of fortune, the depths of human greed, and at last, betrayal most bitter. When those seven minutes were over, you felt like you had already seen one hell of a movie.

“Airbender’s” prologue lands no such punch. It cleaves close to the TV show version, a voiceover set to a few brief images: benders, bad guys, sad guys and a lot of our icy Arctic opening setting. Some of it is essential background, some of it not. (At one point, our narrator informs us that her brother is not very good at hunting — even though his actions immediately following this statement make this clear when he loses track of a seal.)

Where Jackson’s prologue leaves the viewer hungry for more, Shyamalan’s prologue gives the viewer a rushed feeling, and a sneaking suspicion the storyteller is kind of ham-handed.

OK. We can fix this. We are, after all, storytellers. How can we make a prologue that goes fast, conveys vital background info, and doesn’t’ feel so telly? Here’s one attempt that tries to get across everything in the current version — without feeling like it’s a compulsory checklist of facts we’re being spoon fed.

(Have a better prologue idea? Write one up in the comments section!)


We open on a firebender doing martial exercises in front of a brazier of burning coal. A wise GRANDMOTHER’S VOICE speaks over all the images that follow.

(voice over)
Oh, children, you may not believe me when I say it, but time ago, all four nations lived in harmony. It’s true! Water, air and earth — we lived in peace with the fire people.

The firebender completes his exercise by punching forward; the fire of the brazier bursts forth in the fearsome, threatening form of a flying dragon.  He guides the flight of the dragon with his martial art forms in an aerial routine around the room.

In this age, the Fire Nation was not our enemy. They were our closest allies, a friend to all in the Water Tribes.

Reverse angle: The firebenders are performing for a formal feast, a state dinner for the Fire Lord, and the guests are applauding the show. Close on one spectator seated in a place of honor near the Fire Lord, a WATERBENDING WOMAN whose race and attire mark her as a visitor.

My own great-grandmother visited the Fire capital as an honored ambassador of the Southern waterbenders. She feasted on sky-bison and fine wines at the right hand of Fire Lord Sozin himself.

As the fire dragon continues to dart around the chamber, the waterbender gives an impish smirk and gestures grandly at a water pitcher on the table. A coil of water rises magically from the pitcher, then shoots rapidly into the air where the dragon flies; it forms a hoop of ice that the dragon passes through. The guests laugh and clap.

She made quite an impression on the Fire court. Well, she was kind of a show-off, really. In any case, they didn’t soon forget her.

Witnessing this display, an older Fire Nation man sitting at the left hand of the Fire Lord makes an impish smirk of his own. This is Avatar ROKU. Without calling attention to himself, he makes a small gesture that causes the ice hoop to reform as a wall of water just as dragon flies through; this extinguishes the flame, leaving only a puff of smoke. The waterbending woman looks shocked and embarrassed, mouthing to the guests around her, “It wasn’t me!”

She even made the acquaintance of the Avatar himself, who shared waterbending secrets with her and offered his eternal friendship. She never said so, but I believe she was sweet on him.

Roku makes another covert gesture, and the smoke swirls into the shape of an arrow that points accusingly at the woman. Suddenly, everyone in the room gets it: The old man has been playing tricks on the guest, and everyone, including the woman, laughs.

(voice over)
That was Avatar Ruko, wasn’t it, Old Mother?

, girl. Avatar Roku, master of all four elements. He was still alive then. Before the war. Like all Avatars, he traveled the world as a living example of how all four elements … and all four nations … could live as one.

Montage: Roku corrects the form of the waterbending woman. Cut to him in a yoga position with airbending monks, swirling a tower of leaves with each breath. Cut to him earthbending with a team of others to mend an irrigation ditch in a field.

He tended to us all like a shepherd minding a flock of arctic hens. My mother was a little girl when Roku himself visited us here in the Southern Water Village. She talked about his dragon mount for years — thought it was going to melt the whole town.

Cut to Roku at the Southern Water Village where the townsfolk have come out to bid him adieu — he waterbends an ice bridge to help him mount his pet dragon, then waves farewell as flies away. As he does so, we pull back to see the entirety of the village in its biggest and most prosperous state.

If he wants us to live as one, why doesn’t he make the war stop? Why doesn’t he keep all the soldiers away?

The image of the prosperous Water Village fades to reveal what it looked like after the war began: Buildings ruined, public works toppled, wooden structures burning. A line of firebending soldiers advances on horrified townsfolk with plumes of flame.

Because he’s a firebender, dummy. If the Avatar was a waterbender, he’da stopped those fire jerks.

Waterbenders put up a fight against the firebenders, but are no match for their number or their war machines.

That’s not it. It’s because he ran away and died, and he won’t come back, not even his spirit, and there won’t be no Avatars no more. That’s what my dad said.

Oh, pishposh. He died, that’s true enough. Killed maybe, some say.

We see Roku through fire and smoke, lying on the ground amid rivulets of flowing lava. He’s reaching to someone deeper in the smoke that we can’t quite see, but he’s clearly being left to die by the shadow figure. Cut to black.

But the Avatar, he’s much more than flesh. He’s a living link to the spirit world. And when an Avatar dies, his spirit comes back. He always returns to the living as a baby, born to a mother in the next nation in the cycle! Water, earth, fire … and air.

A baby wrapped in swaddling cloth is handed to an airbender monk by an indistinct mother figure. Cut to a line of young children practicing Tai-Chi to blow out candles with airbending — their candles only flicker in the undisciplined gusts.

Oh, he may have to relearn things each time, but that’s what keeps the Avatar spirit connected to a world that is ever-changing. He renews himself with each new life, just as he helps us to renew our world, just as he has — or she has —for hundreds of lifetimes.

At last we resolve on the present day, where the OLD WOMAN speaks to a circle of schoolchildren, including YOUNG GIRL, YOUNG GIRL 2 and YOUNG BOY.

I don’t know, Granny. I think Avatars aren’t real. They’re myths like the Snowflake Fairy.

Hush your mouth, or no more gifts from the Snowflake Fairy! Horrid child. How can you say such a thing!

Well, my dad says —

I taught your father, too, and you better believe I never let him get away with this, this, this no-Avatar talk.

Well, then, where has he been? Where is the Avatar?

The Old Woman loses her spark as she realizes she can’t answer.

If he was reborn with the Air monks, then where is he? It’s been 100 years, Old Mother. Why did he let the Fire Nation destroy us? And haul away my mom? And my brother?

And my brother.

And my dad.

I … I don’t know.

Old Mother, I’m not sure I believe in the Avatar either. Will the Snowflake Fairy still bring me presents?

This is enough for today. It’s time you we all got to the great hall and prepared for dinner.

(perking up)
Hey, what are we having tonight?

It depends on what Sokka catches on his hunt.

The children groan.

Looks like it’s refried hippo blubber again.


Filed under Uncategorized