Top 7 ways Ukraine beat Russia on the information battlefield

Stories matter. Plato feared stories and poems, knowing they were so powerful.

And stories matter a great deal when it comes to war:

  • Soldiers must be highly motivated to risk their lives. To fight with courage, they have to passionately believe in the cause.
  • Civilians need reasons to suffer and sacrifice to support the war effort–and to possibly lose their sons and daughters if they sign up as soldiers.
  • Allies require good narratives to explain to their people why they are sending weapons and financial support to either side of a war.

On all of these fronts, Ukraine utterly crushed Russia’s vaunted disinformation and propaganda machine.

Here is how.

1) We root for the underdog, not the bully

Russia has nuclear weapons and is much larger than Ukraine, and when it invaded, our sympathies naturally went with the smaller country, who did nothing to provoke this war.

From the start, Ukraine celebrated its soldiers and people for defending their country, with videos of average people making Molotov cocktails or camouflage netting for soldiers.

All of Russia’s desperate attempts to portray Ukraine as somehow dangerous, threatening, or Nazi (??), simply did not work.

2) Russia’s narratives conflicted with their military strategy and rampant war crimes

Among other things, Putin claimed that this was about protecting Russian-speaking people, starting with the residents of eastern Ukraine.

His mouthpieces keep talking about how Russia is careful to avoid targeting civilians.

These words mean nothing compared to the flood of photos and videos of Russian attacks on schools, hospitals, and homes. Precision missiles hitting shopping centers and electrical grids turn Putin’s disinformation campaign into a waste of time.

Russia’s military strategy of shelling villages and cities into oblivion, then advancing, also demolished this argument.

And all the evidence of war crimes–including soldiers looting, raping, and killing civilians–completely destroyed any possibility of this narrative working.

4) Russia’s mistreatment of its own soldiers

Putin clearly doesn’t care about those on the front line and treats them like cannon fodder. Intercepted calls and reports from deserters show that soldiers (a) weren’t even told they were going to war, (b) don’t truly understand why they are fighting and dying, (c) don’t trust their officers, and (d) aren’t properly fed, clothed, rested, or treated when wounded.

This wrecks the fighting spirit of Russia’s troops. When you see photos of them compared to Ukraine’s soldiers, it’s clear that Ukraine country cares about its military, feeds them, and keeps them properly equipped, while Russian troops look skinny, dirty, and using a grab-bag of gear, some of it decades old.

5) Ukraine tells us stories of courage and compassion

Every day, we see the people of Ukraine and the jobs they’re doing, whether it’s a combat medic and her crew or a soldier’s mother coming out to hug her son as he liberates her village.

These images stick with you.

Russia doesn’t have anything close to counter those narratives. Instead, they offer up denial, disinformation, and silly threats that they’ve made so often that nobody believes they will invade NATO countries or use nuclear weapons. If they can’t beat Ukraine, what makes Putin think he’d have a chance against a single NATO nation?

6) Trust matters

There’s always deception in war. It’s part of the game.

You want to deceive your enemy and surprise them.

There’s a difference between tricking your enemy and trying to lie to the world.

Ukraine may be understating its losses or wisely choosing not to talk about them too much.

What it’s not doing is trying to sell all kinds of lies to the press, the public, and the world. If Ukraine says X and Russia says Y, journalists and allies know they should put their money on what Ukraine says.

Because throughout this war, Russia has consistently lied. Even massively pro-Russian military bloggers are fed up with the denial of reality, and combat journalists often confirm information coming from Ukraine by getting what’s being reported by military bloggers and accounts of Russian soldiers.

As a former journalist, the last thing I would ever do is take anything Russia says as a fact.

7) People care about the ending of this story

Good narratives have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

They have private stakes–the lives of individual people and soldiers–and public stakes, like the survival of a nation.

In the beginning, we naturally felt sympathetic to Ukraine when it was invaded and bullied by Russia.

Right now in the middle, it’s normal to feel joyous at the remarkable counter-offensive Ukraine waged in September, one that will be written about for decades.

But most of all, people care how a story ends.

Russia has lost the global information war when it comes to this question.

People around the world want Ukraine to be free and democratic. To win this war and restore their sovereignty.

The alternative ending to this story is Ukraine becoming part of Putin’s new empire and the beginning of a new story as he tries to repeat this process in eastern Europe and take over other former members of the Soviet Union.

The contrast between Zelensky and Putin could not be starker.

This is a massive problem for Russia’s disinformation campaign and a huge bonus for Ukraine’s war effort.

Zelensky has served as an amazing wartime leader, uniting the country and rallying the free world to his nation’s defense.

His speeches–to other countries, to the United Nations, and his nightly addresses to the people of Ukraine–have been master classes. I’ll do a whole post talking about these. THEY ARE AMAZING.

Zelensky dresses like a humble soldier, not a CEO, and grew out his beard.

He often visits wounded soldiers in the hospital and regularly travels to the front line. Those photographs and videos are driving Russian military bloggers crazy. As they should.

Zelensky may be one of the most admired leaders in the world right now. Hands down.

Putin may be one of the most hated. He treats his generals with contempt, often removing them from command. He doesn’t visit the front lines and disappears to his villa regularly.

Early in the war, one of Zelensky’s first decisions echoes even today. The United States offered to help evacuate him when it seemed Russia would take Kyiv.

Zelensky refused that offer and reportedly said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

And that response, in the very beginning, set the course for the end of this story.

Why you need to read RITA HAYWARD AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION by Stephen King

Yeah, you’ve probably seen the movie, which is seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

If you haven’t watched it, this is the trailer.

While half the planet may have already seen this movie (not sure, haven’t done a poll), I bet you all the monies in my wallet and yours that far fewer people have read the novella it’s based on. Faithfully, too. They did not mangle the text like Hollywood tends to do.

RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is the first part of a collection of novellas released by Stephen King back when some actor was president in 1982 and the Soviet Union existed and parachute pants were a thing.

I’ve seen the movie maybe four or five times and would happily watch it today. Have read the novella twice as many times and re-read it last night. If you have not read it, pick up a paperback copy of DIFFERENT SEASONS and it’s the first story. Pick it up, a used bookstore will have seven of them for like three bucks.

Let’s get into why this novella is a SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS.

1) Red, the narrator, puts us at the right distance

Instead of seeing this story from Andy’s point of view as he goes to prison and eventually escapes, we see and hear it through Red.

This is a lot like the classic narrative device of having Watson tells us every Sherlock Holmes story. It works for a larger-than-life character like Andy, who becomes myth and legend in the prison.

Telling this story from Andy’s POV wouldn’t work as well, just like Sherlock’s POV would come off as arrogant. You never toot your own horn.

2) Red has to keep guessing, just like we do

He has to piece together a lot of Andy’s story from rumors, gossip, and theories. There are a lot of puzzles he doesn’t put together until the end, like we do.

Having this story told via Red writing it down, as it happens, also helps build suspense. Red isn’t giving us the whole tale after he knows the end. This is more like a diary, and that becomes more important toward the end of the story.

3) The stakes are real and they actually matter

Sure, I love action movies and zombie flicks.

Yet the stakes in this story feel far more real and raw than the novels and movies where bodies pile up. You feel the stifling bars and walls of the prison, the beatings and menace of the Sisters, and the time Red or Andy spend in the Hole.

You feel it, and unlike movies where you know the hero won’t die, the stakes hit harder.

4) It’s actually Red’s story more than Andy’s

Andy’s time in prison doesn’t break his spirit.

This novella, and the movie, are really Red’s story–because he’s the character who changes the most, and it comes via the catalyst of Andy.

This passage just rocks:

Andy was the part of me they could never lock up, the part of me that will rejoice finally open for me and I walk out in my cheap suit with my twenty dollars of mad-money in my pocket. That part of me will rejoice no matter how old and broken and scared the rest of me is. I guess it’s just that Andy had more of that part than me, and used it better.

5) The ending cannot be improved

Come on. You can’t beat this:

Sure I remember the name. Zihuatenejo. A name like that is too pretty to forget.

I find that I am excited, so excited that I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.

I hope Andy is down there.

I hope I can make it across the border.

I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.

I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

Why DAY SHIFT basically works, and how to fix what doesn’t


Listen: I’m a sucker for cheesy action movies. Yet there are more choices than ever, with Netflix and Prime and Disney+++ and the Magnolia Channel Presents: Die Hard at Thanksgiving, Turkeys!

So the cheese better not be moldy, stale, and something we could have any old time. The cheese should be GOOD.

Not great. Not “this thing better win an Oscar.” It should be a fun two hours of your life where you forget that the world is on fire and the oceans are rising and Alex Jones has fans who actually listen to his show, then buy his brain pills.

DAY SHIFT is a new action movie on the Netflixes, which you have even if you won’t admit it, and no, the fact that you are too cool to own a television doesn’t mean we don’t know you watch all kinds of shows on your phone and laptop.

Here’s the trailer:


Jamie Foxx is a believable protagonist, an everyman hero with an extraordinary job. The private stakes are clear: unless he comes up with serious cash in a hurry, his ex-wife will move to Florida along with their daughter.

The movie spends real time establishing this instead of featuring another fight with vampires, and good on them.

Jamie’s character is a flawed man, somebody who keeps screwing up again and again, yet he never gives up. It’s admirable.

The climactic fight with the Big Bad Vampire Boss doesn’t cheat. The vampire is much faster and stronger, and realistically beats the snot out of our hero. He only beats her using brains and a gadget/trick shown in the first scene.

Not too shabby.

How the movie depicts this character is also endearing, for an action movie, in that he isn’t invincible at all. This is a human being who struggles and often nearly loses fights, if not his life.

Contrast this with CARTER, another recent movie that’s somewhat similar in having a singular POV hero fighting a horde of the undead, this time zombies.

Do I adore zombie movies? Hell yes. Did I turn off this movie a third of the way in? Also yes.

I hit the KILL MOVIE button after a scene where the hero, wearing only a g-string, fights and kills six bazillion gangsters and zombies in a sauna, slicing and dicing them all. Kinda not kidding about the number of baddies. Six bazillion may be an underestimate.

Here’s the deal: in thrillers and action movies, less is often more.

It is far, far more enjoyable to watch the hero fight ONE amazing villain (Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, you get the idea) than mow down 20 or 200 or 2,000 interchangeable storm troopers, vampires, zombies, or robot ninjas.


The villain — The connection between the villain and our hero is a little meh. The old grandma vampire he kills in the first scene turns out to be the Big Bad Vampire Lady’s daughter, which we hear about kinda halfway through the movie.

A five-second addition to the first scene would have made a nice straight line from the villain to the hero by showing her giving grandma/daughter a hug or kiss before she hopped into her SUV and drove off to work.

Hollywood ending times two — Hey, I loved Snoop Dogg in this movie, but his sacrifice to save the hero doesn’t fly if he somehow survives. Felt tacked on, like they’re planning a sequel. Also, it would be enough that our hero wins the day and keeps his daughter (and ex-wife) from moving to Florida, so having them psuedo-reconcile felt like a step too far.

Public stakes — We get what the hero can lose (his daughter) if he doesn’t come up with cash by killing enough vampires. What’s missing is the greater stakes. What does is matter if the Big Bad Vampire Real Estate Queen brings a bunch of blood suckers to her subdevelopment?

There’s some dialogue about her bringing all sorts of different vampire species together, and talk of vampire sunscreen so they can shop at the Gap during regular business hours. What we’re missing, though, is a real sense of menace if the hero fails to kill Big Heels Big Fangs.


Is this worth your time? Absolutely, you’ll have fun.

Writing, COVID, working from home, and how well this whiskey pairs with coffee

Photo by Nic McPhee

Listen: I have hardly posted a thing because the zombie COVID pandemic was the crazy, and working from home is both hard and easy, in that it’s easy to work harder and write far more speeches and such when you are in your pajamas at midnight and not wasting two hours a day on the highway.

So here are some thoughts.

Myth: Writers and editors are solitary creatures.

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

Reality: Many wordsmiths may be introverts, or extroverts, or whatever. But working with words does not make you anti-social. Not at all. I know people who bang on the keyboard for monies in a variety of ways–reporters, speechwriters, novelists, screenwriters, editors–and 5.6 metric tons of them are some of the most charming and social people I know.

The truth is, WRITING is the solitary part.

You need peace and quiet to do the creative bit, even if you work in a social setting like me with people everywhere. A ton of folks need to close the door, put on headphones, and go.

I can’t close the door and get solitude at work 99 percent of the time, so I’ve learned to tune out the rest of the world and bang on the keyboard faster than light, going back in time to before sound was invented, then returning to the social world when the draft is done.

Writers are different, and there are other folks who like doing amazing first drafts that take a lot longer. My belief is editing and polishing is a lot easier, and you can do a lot more editing and such with people around and noise. Yet that creative part, the hardest and most fun bit, usually takes some intense focus and solitude.

Myth: Working from home will (a) disappear along with COVID or (b) is the future for all possible workers forever and ever

woman using a laptop
Photo by cottonbro on

Reality: There are some jobs that have to be done in person. Though I actually kinda believe (b) is true–though only for the workers with the leverage to fight and keep it. Folks were just as productive as when they drove into the office.

A ton of companies and organizations are probably feeling completely befuddled about this now. Maybe they’re jumping up and down that they don’t have to pay massive amounts of cash to rent office space, or freaked out because they aren’t renting and just built a giant building that’s empty.

Middle managers are likely losing their minds because they’re designed to operate in person.

I think this will be good for the workplace, especially people with kids and dogs and long commutes. Pretty good bet that a lot of workers who can Grab a Laptop and Do the Job Anywhere may want to come into the office one day a week for all those in-person meetings.

How well this whiskey pairs with coffee

It’s technically a whiskey creamer, and I am technically on vacation, as is my sister-in-law down here visiting. So we we are trying all these itty bitty bottles of different whiskey creamers in our morning coffee. YOU SHOULD DO THIS, but only on vacation or weekends because if you drive hammered you get wrecked, that is my PSA, kthxbai.

Today’s little bottle is: Sheelin White Chocolate Country Creamer, a product of Ireland, rated a 93 by the Beverage Tasting Institute and silver medal winner at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, where it excelled in the high jump.

Sheelin White Chocolate 750ml

Is it good? No.

It is great, and you ask yourself is there any alcohol in this at all, and you wonder why everything is second-person now, like it’s a bad detective novel, until you look at the tiny print on the tiny bottle to realize this adorable bit of cream and white chocolate is not kidding, and does contain whiskey, and is 28 proof.

Verdict: 11/10, would drink again.

The one where Pam overwrites THE DARK KNIGHT

There’s a key lesson in here for writers of any sort, whether you’re doing journalism in Papers of News, writing one-act plays that begin and end with ten minutes of silence, or banging on the keyboard for the next Great American Novel, except you’re in New Zealand, and think the whole concept of the Great American Novel is sillypants.

Pam sums it up like this: “Less is more.”

She’s right. Also, bonus points for the assignment at the end of this video. Too funny.

P.S. Yes, I know the first trailer for THE BATMAN is out. No, I will not dissect it, because 94,230 superfans have already watched it, frame by frame, to look for specific pixels that might give them an easter egg or theory that nobody else thought about yet. But yeah, I liked it. Looking forward to seeing that, and other movies, in actual movie theaters next year with overpriced popcorn and sticky floors and all the things that I miss.

Screenwriting 101 tips – The one where Pam ruins PULP FICTION

Loved this one, sis — too funny, and all true.

You need excitement and activity and danger and conflict. But piling it on subtracts from the tension and stress. More is less, and less is more. Contrast and texture FTW!

Writing secret: What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Maybe you’re writing a 140,000-word epic about a time-traveling Wookie who kills Hitler and invents the polio vaccine. Or you’re cranking out 500-word stories for a Paper of News.

Doesn’t matter.

Less is always, always more.

Nobody complains about a speech being too short, or a movie ending too soon. Always leave the audience wanting more, and always cut whatever you can. A word, a sentence, an entire scene that’s repetitive because we already saw the Wookie find that double-bladed lightsaber which she used to impress the British major-general and let her board the first landing craft at Normandy.

It works in the opposite direction, too. Headlines and hooks can’t be 100 words–you’re talking a sentence or two. Pitches, blurbs, dialogue, just about everything you can think of benefits from stripping away the fat to reveal sleek, practical, essential muscle.

Once you strip it all away, it becomes clear how great writing works and bad writing falls off the Cliff of Despair and tumbles into the Pit of Absolute Rubbish.

The easiest places to see this? Two sentence stories.

Check out these five, then we’ll chat.

Number 1, The Classic

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.”

I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

Author unknown, and yes, this version is a little wordy. Let’s cut it down.


“Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.”

I peeked under the cover and my son stared back as he whispered, “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.”


Every father’s nightmare. You’ll do anything to protect your sons and daughters. How would you handle this impossible choice?

Number 2

“Now be careful, that line of rock salt is the only thing keeping them out,” the man said, welcoming my group into his refuge.

“Sea salt,” I clarified, “sea salt keeps us out.”

This is good, right? A great setup for a horror movie. Bring it.

Number 3

Bullets flew through the mall, ripping clothes to shreds.

In the chaos, no one noticed the mannequins bleeding.

Did not see this coming. At all. Well played, Professor Biscuit.

Number 4

The sound of my son calling for my help grew fainter and fainter.

As the batteries in my hearing aides died, I realized it would soon be impossible for me to find him in time.


The first three are fantasy and unrealistic.

This one is quite real, and I believe it’s scarier because of it.

Number 5

“I forgot to grab something, I’ll be right back,” said Mom.

As she rounded the corner, out of sight, the cashier began ringing up our groceries.

Here we go: comedy instead of horror. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as our wife, husband, son or mother leaves you in line at Safeway or Costco “to grab something real quick,” then you stand there, waiting forever as the person in front of you finishes checking out and you empty your cart onto the belt slower and slower as there is absolutely no sign of them, and the checker starts giving you the side eye because there are four people waiting behind your slow butt, so what is your problem, so where are there, did they get lost or kidnapped, and should you leave the line to save them from a serial killer only to get embarrassed when they show up with that bottle of white wine they were looking for? WHERE ARE THEY, AND SHOULD WE CALL THE POLICE?

So yeah, this one is funny, and a little horrific, because we have all been there. And will be there again.

What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Every genre of writing tends to get wrapped up in its own pet jargon, theories, practices, and templates.

A news story has to use the inverted pyramid. Every press release needs a first-graf lede, then a quote in the second graf. Detective heroes are alcoholic loner rebels paired up with a square sidekick who has a family.

Two-sentence stories toss all of that and return us to the basics.

The first sentence is a setup, making us curious about what happens next.

In the second sentence, we get the payoff.

That’s it.

Comedians are doing the same thing, which is why most jokes are two-sentences. All you need is a setup and a payoff.

Sure, it helps to add more flourishes, and a longer story–or joke–can have a greater payoff.

Look again at those four examples. There isn’t a single name to any character, no description of their age, hair, face, body, backstory. Zero.

Because you don’t need those things to generate interest.


Do some two-sentence stories. A joke, a horror story, a shocking idea. Whatever.

Then take whatever you’re writing and boil it down to two sentences. Setup and payoff.

Note: making each sentence 400 words is not okay, Cheaty McCheatypants.

Writing secret–emotions are everything

I believe our natural instincts–to write not to fail, and follow all the rules–tends to strip our ability to evoke emotion in readers. And no matter type of writing you do–poems, screenplays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles–the trick is getting something to resonate with the reader.

That doesn’t happen with facts or logic, though both of those elements have their place.

It happens emotionally.


The best writing makes you laugh and cry, smell and taste, hope and fear. It awakens something inside of you.

So: I believe, deep in my evil little soul, that every writer is trying for this, consciously or not.

Except 99 percent of pieces I read miss the target. Wide left or wide right. Not because of grammar or syntax, or breaking any of the rules you were taught from kindergarten through college. There are technically sound pieces published ten times a second that follow the rules, except none of that matters because the text utterly fails to resonate in the reader’s emotional core.

Which is a waste, both of talent and good material.

In journalism school, they drill us to be objective and factual. Spock-like, unless you’re doing a flowery feature story, in which case you’re allowed to show the subjects expressing some emotion, though you have to be invisible, My Young Reporter, invisible and unseen and unmoved by any of the joys or horrors that you’re witnessing. Fiery car crash? Give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Cute little girl with a pet turtle that plays soccer with her in the backyard? Spend the last line of the piece inverted pyramid style by telling us the color of the little girl’s house.

I’ve discovered, the hard way, that (a) emotions matter most and (b) few writers are trained in how to evoke them. Believe me, I felt plenty of emotion covering those fiery car wrecks, little kids with turtles or hedgehogs, and murder scenes. You always feel something. It wouldn’t be worth covering if you didn’t.

If evoking emotion is important to all writing, how do you do it?

My old friend Robin Boyes had the first step. He said, “You have to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel.” He was a speechwriter and coach, so that advice was aimed first at speakers. Except it applies to speechwriters, and all writers. If you’re not feeling something when you write it, the fact that you intend for the audience to feel something during that part of the text is completely irrelevant. They don’t know your secret plan. There are no album liners, no footnotes telling people “hey, be sad here” or “this is where I hope you get truly pissed off.”

True emotion starts with you, as a writer or speaker. Because you can’t fake it, or cheat your way to this. I believe this is why a lot of writers, rock stars, and other artists tended to turn to alcohol and other things.

I tell people to overdo it at first. Go wild. Let go of your inhibitions, your extensive notes, the mound of quotes and facts you planned on including in the text. Put all of that away, as George Pica taught me, and tell me the story like you’re sharing it with a good friend. “You would not believe what the city council just did. What the hell?” Write it like that.

Include the passion, the short-hand, the slang, the things you felt and why.

That’s your first draft.

Then go back and clean it up. Insert the facts, quotes, details. Take out the slang and short-hand. Fix the structure to give it a beginning and end, because we’re taking the Inverted Pyramid out behind the barn and sending it home to heaven and the angels.

This is your second draft, which you’re going to have edited by somebody else. A pro. Not your husband, cousin, neighbor, or best friend from college. A professional.

Third draft should be the final, where you want to double-check all the usual things, as a habit, while looking at the emotional arc. It can’t be one-note, entirely happy or sad. That’s repetitive and ineffective. If it’s a story about a mom and her daughter getting hit by a drunk driver, you don’t start with that and end with details about the license plate of the suspected drunk. When you’re ending is down, the beginning should be up, and vice versa. You don’t pile horror on top of horror, or stack joy on more joy until you have a mountain of happiness. Doesn’t work that way. It’s why the Marvel movies use humor so consistently–they’re cleansing your palate. More thrilling action scenes would actually detract from the movie.

Whatever you’re writing, the goal should be the biggest possible difference, emotionally, from the beginning to the end. A hero sheriff becomes a villain, stealing money from the evidence locker while arrogantly believing whatever he did was right, because he was the one doing it, and the money was being taken from criminals, so who cares? Two estranged brothers, who refused to talk to each for fifty years, forgive each other during a five-shots-of-tequila night at the local biker’s bar.

Because there’s always a beginning and an end, though you wouldn’t know it from how most pieces are written, and the audience doesn’t want to be told how to feel, or beaten over the head with an explicit message. Give them subtext and details, then let the audience decide for themselves.

So I hope this helps even one writer struggling to figure out why a piece isn’t working. I hope it helps generate a few more stories which make people laugh and cry and see things differently.

And I hope you feel more than a little something the next time you brew a fresh pot of coffee and start banging on the keyboard. Let yourself feel a lot. It’s the only way your audience will feel anything at all.

Further reading:

The secret truth about writing

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

HEIST is a master class in tying character arcs to plot twists

As a public service, I’ve watched 99.9 percent of everything on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Whatever Blu-Rays are Inside that Shoebox I Found in Yonder Cupboard.

HEIST is what I saw last night, and (1) yes, it’s worth sending radiation at dried corn kernels for you to snack on while watching this thing, and (2) there are interesting storytelling techniques we’re going to talk smack about here on this website blog WordPress thing.

Because I care about you, this is the trailer:

So yes, you’ve got Negan (whoa!), Drax the Destroyer (double-whoa!!), and Robert-Freaking-DeNiro (you lie!!!) in the same movie? Plus Gina Carano? NO WAY.


Here’s the thing that I want to talk about: each of these characters has a distinct arc, one that not only works by itself, but is a vital part of the twists and reversals that serve as the V-8 engine of this story.

  • Negan is the hero with a deadline, an Army vet and card dealer who needs to find $400,000 by 7 p.m. on Friday for his daughter’s cancer treatment.
  • Drax the Destroyer is the casino security guard with the idea of robbing the place, and the one running the job.
  • Robert DeNiro is the cut-throat businessman who owns the casino and is (a) estranged from his daughter, his only family, and (b) dying of cancer.
  • Gina Carano is the cop chasing Negan and Drax in their getaway bus.

That’s right, a getaway bus. Remember SPEED, with Neo stuck on a bus that can’t go less than 55 or the bus and all its passengers go boom? This movie isn’t a straight ripoff. Being stuck on the bus, though, with the cops surrounding you, is a great premise. They run out of diesel once, and have to work around that. The cops shoot out a tire. There are just all sorts of great problems presented by being stuck on that bus.

But I want to talk about the intersection of the character arcs and story beats.

Negan improves the plans of Drax, who’s running the job, and he’s clearly smarter than the hothead Drax.

So it makes storytelling sense that instead of letting Drax kill a hostage–the bus driver–Negan shoots Drax instead.

Then it’s the bus driver who has the idea of how to get Negan off the bus while leading the bad detective (in the pay of Robert DeNiro) to chase the bus somewhere else.

To get the money off the bus, Negan uses a fake pregnant “hostage”–his sister–and makes sure she’s the first hostage released. Clever.

And when DeNiro spares Negan, shooting his hotheaded protege before he can kill the card dealer who stole his money, you believe it, because DeNiro has been questioning his path the whole movie, and this makes sense. He’s trying to do right by the world now.

Finally, you believe Gina’s police officer character looking the other way at the end, and letting Negan save his daughter, because it’s not a sudden change of heart. They’ve set this up with scene after scene where Negan and Gina both try to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost, while Drax tries to MURDER DEATH KILL everything in sight.

There isn’t a lot of Christopher Nolan cheating going on here, storywise. The setups are all there if you look for them, or remember. I just enjoy how the character and story beats mesh so well, and when the revelations all hit at the end, it makes you impressed with Negan’s cleverness and selflessness and happy about DeNiro’s final acts and Gina’s compassion.

All of this is nice contrast to most action movies, where evil and bloody things happen to just about any character at any time, except for the hero, because everyone but the hero is basically a bad guy who’s gonna die or a sidekick type who’s also gonna die. I mean, come on. White Bearded Mentor Who’s Kinda Like Obiwan Crossed with Mr. Miyagi? Dead by the end of Act 1. Hot girlfriend, sweet wife, or cute little daughter? Kidnapped by the end of Act 2. Sidekick who’s there mostly for tech support and comic relief? Impaled on a swordfish at the beginning of Act. 3. Femme Fatale with a thing for the hero? Fed to the sharks with lasers right before the rooftop battle with the Final Boss.


HEIST is clever and entertaining movie that reminds me a lot of SHIMMER LAKE (a perfect movie, go watch it, DO IT NOW) in that you’re cheering on a good man doing wrong things for the right reasons. It’s free on Netflix so fire it up.


The acid test for all writing

I believe, deep in my soul, that Zack Snyder-style gritty darkness isn’t bad simply because Zack Snyder directs it. Gritty Dark Dourness would be bad if the love child of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock sat in the director’s chair.

And yes, it’s still fun to laugh at BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE.

But there’s something smart and deeper behind the idea that the Marvel movies got things right by being (a) funny and (b) exciting, while the DC / Snyderverse went wrong by taking itself far too seriously and going Full Melodrama, with a color palette full of grays and blacks contrasted by grays and more blacks. You never go Full Melodrama, because it makes your audience feel like the movie’s being written and directed by a bipolar Michael Bay who’s crying in a corner when he’s not blowing stuff up.

And all this made me think.

Because comedy isn’t actually light and fluffy. True comedy points out how absurd and unfair the world is, and how you can’t fix it and have to laugh at the insanity of it all.

My proposition is this: adding comedy to a book or movie doesn’t make it light and lame kiddie fare. Interweaving comedy into whatever–an action movie (every Marvel movie ever), a romance (ROMANCING THE STONE and every rom-com), a mystery (SHIMMER LAKE is perfect perfect perfect, go watch it now on Netflix, kthxbai)–can make it infinitely better.

We were talking yesterday about our favorite books of high lit-rah-sure, and my favorites were CATCH-22, Kurt Vonnegut and the ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL books, because I’ll happily go back and re-read any of these. What do they have in common? They’re universally beloved, recognized as classics, and funny as hell.

But making you laugh isn’t their only trick, like a SNL skit that repeats itself 459 times in four minutes. The best storytellers serve us different courses for our emotions over the length of a movie or book. They don’t dish up sad scene after sad scene, or pile up joke after joke. You get an appetizer, a main course, side dishes and dessert. Not five appetizers in a row or a plate full of six desserts.

ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL does this beautiful. The original book and its sequels are really short stories strung together. Each one, though, makes you feel a variety of emotions. Joy, sadness, laughter, love. You see the struggling young vet and the hard-scrabble farmers, and when an animal dies, or a sick cow makes it because a poor farmer stayed up all night tending to that animal, yeah, you might tear up.

That’s what makes us come back to those books and movies.

Not the plot points–we know what will happen. Not the writing.

We want to feel.

So that leads me to the acid test for me, as a writer. It’s how I know whether a draft is working or not.

Here’s the test: If I’m not tearing up, it’s not working.

Tears of joy, tears of laughter, tears of sadness–I better be feeling something as I write the ending. If I don’t, bring on the rewrite.

So yes, we can make fun of the dour, dark Snyderverse, and relentlessly depressing lit-rah-sure like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, where the scenery is beautiful and everybody’s rich and having affairs and in the end, everybody sells out to the Nazis and dies, the end, roll credits, and THROW SILVERWARE AT THE SCREEN BECAUSE THIS IS STUPID.

What do you want the audience to feel?

That’s the real question. And you have to feel it first.