Review: Cultish

So anyone who follows my reviews or has the misfortune of listening to me IRL knows that I have a bit of a special interest in Cults, and all things ‘Cultish’ so its not much of a surprise that I like this book.

The specific approach of assessing language is endlessly fascinating to me, and I think is a useful way of comparing and contrasting known ‘cults’ and cultish groups within our communities.

While some my disagree, I enjoyed the balanced approach to the writing, Montell clearly points out that there is a major spotlight on dangerous cult activity which leads people to fail to realize there are any number of potential cults present all over the world that are benign. That said, Montell does skewer various modern movements in fitness and MLM for being pretty cult-like and concerning, but I think its a welcome analysis.

What I liked best about this book, is the perfect balance of humour, the examination of stereotypes about cult- leaders and followers, and the deft handling of lighter and darker elements in the discussion. Normally non-fiction can be a slow read, however I genuinely found myself unable to put this book down, Montell is hilarious, compassionate and has awesome tattoos.

Cultish isn’t just a interesting read (also has a good breakdown of our fascination with things cultish) Montell points out many interesting lingual tidbits which are useful to be aware of in the modern world, phrases that halt critical thought, us versus them language, and so on.

Highly recommended.

A Deep Dive into Forrest Gump symbolism

Ok this probably seems a bit random but hear me out

So Forrest Gump is one of those classic movies that I really only watched all the way through once as a child, and then in the intervening years, it would sometimes be on when channel surfing and you’d watch the rest, or at least that scene, not to mention any number of memes more recently, and oddly (more on this later) a lot of analysis and criticism of Jenny.

For no particular reason I found myself rewatching Forrest recently, perhaps it had just been added to a platform, but I actually watched the film with quite a critical eye – to be honest despite my enjoyment of over-analyzing things I usually leave that to youtubers for me to watch afterwards!

Most strange of all I actually found a lot to analyze about Forrest Gump, and stewed on this for a while and just left it alone as life went one, however after seeing another argument online about whether Jenny was a villain I decided I would indeed write my deep dive into Forrest Gump, its not all about Jenny but as I will discuss later it kinda is…

A quick recap and Surface Review

Spoiler alert (I guess). The story of Forrest Gump is something that I would call deceptively shallow. On the surface, Forrest narrates his life story to strangers at a bus stop, the majority of his story telling is how he innocently became involved in all manner of historical events throughout his life, interspersed with significant emotional/relationship events such as each time he encounters Jenny.

Jenny is the consistent thread throughout Forrest’s life, he meets her on his first day of school, and its implied that they are essentially inseparable throughout their school life before being apart for college. Encounters with Jenny are characterized by Forrest attempting to protect/pursue a relationship with Jenny, and Jenny rebuffing Forrest while becoming increasingly into drug use and abusive relationships. As the movie begins to include eventually Jenny appears to ‘come around’ and sleeps with Forrest, only to disappear again, finally reaching out to him after his long run and revealing not only that Forrest has a son, but that Jenny is dying of AIDS.

There is also a plot thread where Forrest encounters Lieutenant Dan, initially as an abrasive but not uncharismatic CO in Viet Nam, Forrest saves Dan, who is left legless after their platoon is attacked. Forrest encounters Dan again after the war, working together on a shrimp boat and eventually we see Lieutenant Dan with prosthetic legs and a (presumably) Vietnamese wife.

I have to say, in many respects the movie Forrest Gump is actually hella crazy. Forrest’s borderline disability, and his bumbling innocent antics getting him smack in the center of every other historic event is effectively slapstick comedy, yet Jenny’s abusive backstory and downward spiral, alongside Lieutenant Dan’s path are very dark. Indeed Forrest’s story is ultimately extremely harrowing, while the conclusion implies a significant amount of meaning and happiness for Forrest in having a child (and being rich AF) one can’t help but question his life and the trauma intermixed in it.

So just a bit about context and subtext. I have to confess I’m typically a bit brainless and confused when it comes to this topic, but for whatever reason I found myself making a lot of sense of the two concepts for this movie.

For a brief explanation, context is sometimes used as a term to describe the actual things that happen in a movie whereas subtext is the implied meaning behind the context.

I think why I get confused is that movies vary in the amount of subtext they have, sometimes what you see, is what you get. At other times there may be relatively straightforward subtexts, or as I’m about to try and argue, sometimes a surprising amount of implied or hidden meaning.

Contextually the theme of Forrest Gump is really about destiny, do we have one, or is life just a ‘box of chocolates.’ This theme is actually quite quietly presented in the film, yes we get the chocolates line early, however we don’t really get the point until quite far into the movie – when Forrest’s mother is on her deathbed, he tearfully asks her what his destiny is. Then finally when speaking to Jenny’s gravestone Forrest reveals that he things that life is a little bit of both destiny and random.

This theme is mirrored in our two significant characters Lieutenant Dan and Jenny. Dan very much believes in destiny, his being to die in battle, Jenny representing a feather being blown around randomly by the wind.

To build on this idea many characters are shown to break cycles – Dan not dying on the battlefield Bubba’s family becoming wealthy and switching from being the ‘help’, Jenny finally cleaning up and ditching abusive situations.

In a way the surface theme of Forrest is essentially, you might have a destiny or life might be random, but just don’t get stuck.

Going Deeper

So this is where things might get a little weird.

So coming back to the endless discussions about Jenny being a villain/horrible person etc etc. I was surprised to see that over the years there has been a lot of discussion, generally about how beloved Lt. Dan is and how horrible Jenny is, even to the point of claiming that she effectively is taking advantage of Forrest even up to the end, only reconnecting with Forrest to ensure she was kept comfortable for the last year of her life and to secure Forrest Jnr’s future, some have even suggested its unlikely that Forrest Jnr is in fact Forrest’s son (one would then question why name him Forrest unless Jenny was unsure if she would see Forrest again)

Anyway, my analysis of the subtext is pretty out there, and it doesn’t exactly solve the above but perhaps implies that its the wrong approach.

Alright here we go…

Forrest Gump is Jesus.

Hear me out here. Religiosity, praying, relationships with God, and heaven are all significant parts of the movies. It’s interesting though because these sections are not overtly shoved in the foreground, and between the various historic events, relationship dramas etc, most spiritual references seem relatively sensible in place, as one would expect a simple man from Alabama is probably going to be Christian.

But let me posit this theory of meaning – Forrest isn’t the main character of this story. Forrest in all his innocence represents Jesus and the story is about Lt. Dan and Jenny eventually accepting Forrest/Jesus and redeem themselves.

Wow wat? Let me take this step by step.

First – implications that Forrest is Jesus:

  • Is introduced as fatherless (obviously not implying immaculate birth, but its a symbol y’all)
  • Forrest is supremely innocent = sinless
  • His telling stories to strangers at the bus stop, particularly random tales is like parables
  • The majority of Forrest’s story’s are about him travelling the world doing good deeds
  • In one scene Forrest tells Lt. Dan that he is ‘going to heaven’ he says this with utter certainty
  • Forrest goes out into the wilderness (and grows a Jesus beard)
  • In a round-about way Forrest makes Lt. Dan walk again

In my opinion this changes the lens of both Lt. Dan and Jenny considerably. Rather than Forrest being the main character, and us judging them bases on their approach, consider that Lt. Dan and Jenny are the main characters of this story, and the story is about them accepting Forrest into their lives to find redemption with God. This is all but spelt out with Lt. Dan, as the climax of his arc shows him throwing himself into the water to a backdrop of a beautiful cloud and Forrest outright stating that he thought Lt. Dan had “made his peace with God.” It may seem like the spirituality of the moment is all on the surface, but the quieter implication is that Lt. Dan go there because he accepted Forrest.

This is a little more complex with Jenny. Jenny initially is the only child to befriend Forrest, and one of the first scenes we see is Jenny running with Forrest into a field and asking him to pray with her. Interestingly she asks God to turn her into a bird so she can fly away. In one of the final scenes of the film as Forrest walks away from Jenny’s grave a flock of birds flies away.

Perhaps slightly more on the nose following this scene we skip to Jenny’s father being arrested. As the story progresses though we see Jenny increasing reject Forrest (three times I believe which is a biblical reference to Peter denying Jesus three times) and her life become darker and darker until finally seeking Forrest out herself. Note the penultimate time Jenny and Forrest meet is different to the usual, after a lifetime of bumping into Jenny co-incidentally and Forrest trying to convince her, Jenny seeks Forrest out.

This second last sequence with Forrest and Jenny does create a lot of food for thought, and it hotly debated in the ‘Jenny is evil’ arguments. Just a quick reminder, Once Jenny shows up she stays with Forrest for a whole month. Forrest asks Jenny to marry him, which she refuses, but sleeps with him, then abruptly leaves.

Interestingly as she enters a cab, the driver asks “where you running to” to which Jenny replies “I’m not running.”

I found this part to be quite perplexing, especially since the following sequence is quite short movie time wise, but a long period chronology, where Forrest effectively decides to spend the next three years of his life running (reminder, big Jesus beard, and wilderness symbolism).

In terms of Jenny’s life, its strongly implied she effectively gets her life together, works as a waitress and then possibly a nurse, but its hard not to judge Jenny for this final rejection as it feels like Forrest and Jenny were on the verge of being a happy family. It also appears cruel that Forrest is essentially cut out of this part of Jenny’s life only to be re-introduced to lose her to death again.

Of course that is if you consider Forrest a person and not a deity!!

Essentially my argument is the story is about Jenny’s struggle, not Gump’s. She had to find herself rather than just live with multi-zallionarie Gump (hence giving back medal etc.)

Finally as Jenny lays on her death bed Forrest talks a lot about heaven touching earth – and always being with Jenny.

So brining this all back to Jenny’s villainy, I think its in error to think too hard on her mistreatment of Forrest, which while contextually pretty true, I think the ultimately meaning is that the movie is about Jenny (and Lt. Dan) accepting God into their lives and being redeemed. In a strange way Forrest is a non-character, in the same way he is cut and pasted into all these historical events, he could just as easily be edited out and the story would be about Lt. Dan and Jenny and their struggles!

Don’t believe me – take a good hard look at this image here:

Note the lack of Forrest in this scene, yes he wanders over to support Jenny but to me the key message is Jenny’s struggle.

Ultimately my point is that Forrest Gump is potentially one of the strangest movies around, weirder even than Mulholland Drive, and possibly the only movie I’ve watched and been like ‘whoa hang on there is some sort of symbolism going on here’.

So, thank you for coming along for this essay. Do you have any thoughts, have I gone too far, not far enough. Any other examples of classic (or not classic) movies with deeper subtexts.

P.S Jenny the Villain

Okay I couldn’t quite leave the post without weighing in to the surface/context debate of this.

So is Jenny a villain?

Let’s do this blow by blow: (I’ll probably mix some of the chronology up please forgive)

In the first scene we meet Jenny, she is the only person on the school bus to let Forrest sit with her – doesn’t seem villainous to me!!

The next few sequences aren’t too clear – Jenny prays with Forrest and later we see that Jenny frequently if not practically every night has a sleepover with Forrest as she is scared in her grandmother’s trailer. To be fair there is an awful lot missing from our knowledge about school life with Jenny and Forrest largely due to Forrest being an unreliable narrator, I think its safe to assume that both Jenny and Forrest were outcasts and their connection throughout school was fairly mutual.

Then we get the next phase, basically a series of co-incidental encounters that are characterized by Forrest embarrassing Jenny with violent overprotectiveness, Jenny eventually being kind to Forrest but ultimately rejecting him to continue her downward spiral of drugs and abusive relationships. I think its important to point that most viewers will favor Forrest in these encounters as both the apparent main character, an underdog, and a birds-eye view that what Forrest is attacking is ‘bad’ for Jenny. But as many of these reviewers want to be hyper-rational about these things its important to point out the alternative point of view. Jenny is a grown woman, and hasn’t agreed to any sort of relationship with Forrest, she is 100% entitled not to enter one and not expect him to physically attack people she is close to. The final moment is debatable as he does witness her boyfriend slap her first.

So is this sequence villainous – it’s hard to judge it so, yes Jenny is unfair to Forrest, not accepting his love and missing obvious chances for a heathier life with Forrest, but this is totally understandable from a character point of view, Jenny was seriously abused as a child and even though Forrest is a source of support its clear from his narration that he doesn’t understand abuse at all. Following that while Jenny does make poor choices, she is clearly shown to be conflicted and struggling, she isn’t mean to Forrest she has demons.

So the final sequence. In this part Jenny effectively appears at Forrest’s, detoxes, rejects his marriage proposal, sleeps with him and departs again. As far as we are shown it look like since that part Jenny is clean, has her life together, gives birth to Forrest Jnr and eventually contacts Forrest after seeing him running.

This section is the most debatable – on the one hand Jenny has finally admitted to loving Forrest and sleeping with him, on the other she abruptly leaves at a time when he could have been most happy. Some people interpret her actions as extremely expedient and advantage taking, others have said just the opposite! Some have said she intended to get pregnant others, not.

I think for me it comes down to genuine character choices. I believe that understandable Jenny was still conflicted more about herself than Forrest, she needed to make it on her own rather than stay with Forrest. Remember Forrest is a gazzilonaire at that point so if Jenny were a total villain marrying him then would have made more sense. There is always a little lack of clarity in this sequence. When Jenny leaves, Forrest quickly begins his long run. During this period he in uncontactable (no social media in that era) its not particularly obvious what struggles Jenny went through on what timescale in relation to Forrest’s birth. If anything though I do believe it indicates Jenny trying to do right by both Forrest’s when she reconnects with Forrest Senior.

Verdict: Jenny a traumatized conflicted individual not a villain!

Review: The Math of Life and Death

In many respects this is quite an odd book, I suppose the title could be misleading, perhaps sell the book as a listicle type of thing…

Instead the Maths of Life and Death is effectively 7(at least) lessons in maths which are essentially useful to know. The book isn’t needlessly dense, nor too superficial. The goal is essentially to provide an understandable summary of a mathematical concept and how its relevant, what we do with that info is ultimately up to us.

I confess there were a few moments where I got a bit overwhelmed with numbers, but really only a couple of times when explaining the statistics of medical tests and rare statistical events. Fortunately 100% understanding of numbers is not needed to understand the concepts as long as you can take Yates’ word for it.

The topics covered are:

Exponential growth (and decline) – unfortunately an important topic in modern pandemic times

Sensitivity and Specificity of medical tests – again an important topic!

Laws of mathematics – thankfully nothing to do with disease, this was actually an interesting diversion into the maths often used in legal settings and how they can me misleading

Don’t believe the truth – media statistics – in my opinion this chapter could almost be a must read for everyone. Yates explains how statistics can be used and misused publicly, and of most interest without outright misinformation or lying.

Evolution of Number systems – probably more of a general interest one, Yates explains how we came about having base 10 for (most) of our systems, what some alternatives have been and the issues that can arise.

Relentless Optimization – a super interesting dive into algorhythms an important and probably only going to be more important topic.

Containing disease – OK back to the pandemic. Sarcasm aside this chapter is really relevant and useful for understanding public health policies around lock-downs, mitigations and vaccines.

Overall while the maths makes the subjects automatically quite technical Yates does an awesome job making the writing interesting and accessible. I know I praise most non-fiction but this one is highly recommended.

Review (Non-Fiction): Noise, a Flaw in Human Judgement

Noise by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow (I always get that name wrong) is one of my favourite and most recommended books on psychology, about the only thing I fault with it is being a fairly dense and ‘slow’ read.

Noise continues the latter tradition, and I confess it almost reached my limit for density and I almost had to make a reading plan to finish the book rather than joyfully devouring non-fiction as I normally would. I have to eat some attitude hear as I often hassle the trope/strategy of non-fiction where authors ensure to personalize science with human stories, however Noise probably could have done with more personal touches.

As to the content, Noise is quite a strange thesis – specifically looking at forms or error or variation in judgement not from the more well known concept of ‘bias’ but from the more random ‘Noise.’ One can perhaps be forgiven for wondering would this topic provide enough material for an entire book! Although I think the authors did an interesting job covering a range of area.

Ironically the structure of the book is a little noisy, it doesn’t feel like it flows between subjects, sometimes a chapter is a short burst, other times a heavy thesis. Very broadly the book addresses what noise is, touches on the flaws of human judgements and considers topics such as AI, structured rules and so forth and then finally concludes on how to manage noise. I didn’t find the summary quotes at the end of each chapter particularly helpful or compelling either.

It probably sounds like I’m quite negative about this book, but its important to clarify that there is a lot of useful insight and information contained within it, I’m just being upfront that its heavy reading to get it. If you are considering a read, I would review the chapter subjects to confirm areas of interest and treat the book more like a textbook to reference at times, rather than a start to finish book.

Review: Sandman Vol 6

The Sandman, Vol. 6 by Neil Gaiman

Vol 6 is an interesting edition to our stories about the pale Endless. Largely standalone, and if I have my facts straight, all based in the past, Vol 6 collects stories of various individuals, some completely original, some from mythology and some from history, and recounts their experiences encountering The Sandman.

Probably most striking is a return to an earlier plot thread – Sandman’s relationship and actual child with one of the muses. In many respects the character development here most shows the ‘colder’ version of Sandman that we keep hearing about in current timelines, and boy he is COLD.

The other standout, it some brief time with Destruction (I hate to admit this but its literally only this recent readthough that I realized all the Endless are D’s) and some classic interactions with the other Endless.

On Writing: Open Endings

Irony Mark Clip Art at - vector clip art online ...

I was recently watching a Folding Ideas episode on the movie Annihilation which by the way is a great movie (SPOILERS AHEAD) and the video is great too…

But something that stuck with me from the essay, was the statement that ambiguous or open ended endings (let me look up the quote again) frustrate the reader/audience and force them to consider the metaphorical and thematic aspects of a work.

This statement really got me thinking about endings and themes! Before I go any further, I don’t actually have a great memory for this detail in books and movies, so apologies, it does feel a little like I should have a long list to include within this post.

At least I can use Annihilation I suppose 😀

Before I go in that direction though I just want to cover off a few things.

In my opinion open or ambiguous endings are somehow both ironically but by definition hard to pin down. Here are some things that I think are not ambiguous open endings:

Cliff-hangers/Sequel teases – nothing in particular wrong with these endings, in fact I like to get hyped for future episodes/books. But I wouldn’t call a cliff-hanger ambiguous or open exactly. Sure an unresolved situation (such as a person hanging off a cliff) does meet the definition of openness – but its a different kind, its left open for ‘next time’ not left open ‘work it out’

Unresolved, or untied plots – this is a tricky one that some might disagree with, I think many stories often leave a few strings untied, or paths untraveled however this doesn’t mean the ending is ambiguous/open more that the particular resolution was not specifically relevant or perhaps resolving could have actually undermined a more important point. This seems more common in sprawling series/books with many characters.

So what exactly do I think an ambiguous or open ending is?

If I start with Annihilation as an example this may help (again SPOILERS)


In Annihilation, Lena (Natalie Portman) investigates a mysterious alien ‘shimmer’ a massive dome/bubble/blob that is slowly expanding over the U.S. and possibly in the future the world, so far all incursions into the shimmer have resulted in loss of the team, bar Lena’s husband who returned “changed.”

After a variety of cosmic horror challenges, Lena is able to ‘defeat’ a personification of herself and apparently the entire Shimmer, along the way she discovers her apparent husband is some sort of copy. Upon returning Lena is under isolation/quarantine and interacts with her husband/copy and both their eyes show shimmer-esque changes in colour.

The ending is ambiguous and open for lots of reasons, it calls into question Lena’s apparent victory, she obviously did not completely ‘destroy’ the Shimmer, it also leaves open what is her relationship with husband/copy going forward.

Folding Ideas makes fun of all the ‘explained’ videos that claim basically the ending is that the ‘aliens’ won and the Shimmer will continue in Lena and copy. I really have to confess that I didn’t fully understand Annihilation as deeply until watching the video, so I strongly recommend it. Basically the thesis is that the story explores the impacts of pain/trauma/illness on personal identity, how it changes us, sometimes destroying us completely, sometimes changing us into a different person, or can be accepted. It also explores how we impact each other, and ‘blend’ identities.

The ending, of showing Lena and Copy with Shimmery eyes isn’t telling us there is going to be an epic sequel “Too Annihilated Too Shimmery” but that both have been changed by trauma.

Something I particularly love about the film is that while this is an open ending, the film still provides a satisfying climatic resolution. I think when considering open endings this is an area that can get blurry. Just for clarity – the resolution of a climax isn’t typically the ‘end’ of a story, but can feel like it, a resolution is how the main tension is resolved. In my opinion even a highly metaphoric thematic story shouldn’t have an ambiguous resolution, it can be subtle, unexpected or even confusing but a story should still resolve. The ending is more the final settled after the climax, that usually in an unambiguous story will show the new status quo for the characters. Writing this makes me think that the two typically ways of creating open-endings, one is to have uncertainty with the characters – did they change, or what change have they undergone, and/or uncertainty with the setting, it the world the same one they left?

After hearing about this idea of open endings it seems pretty obvious that an open ending calls for a review or closer attention to the story leading up to it, but I never clicked that an ambiguous ending essentially demands a thematic analysis of the story!

That said I don’t think open endings necessarily mean the story is intentionally thematic, there can be other purposes for an ambiguous ending. It may be a call for the reader/audience to make up their own minds about the end, or the point of the ending is to ponder. Another point is that an open ending may stamp an idea more powerfully than clarity – this is slightly different from demanding a thematic review of a story and more that the punctuation of the end hits harder when its open. Just as I write this another example pops to mind – perhaps slight out there…

In Gone with the Wind we spent many hundreds of pages following Scarlett’s journey through hardship after hardship. In the finale we see Scarlett finally completely accept Rhett as her ideal partner, only to have him reject and leave her. We see Scarlett scheme to get him back, and end on the quote “Tomorrow is another day.”

It’s actually a pretty strange ending in many respects, it doesn’t quite go so far as to require a rethink of the entire large novel through a thematic lens, but rather the openness of the ending does have a rather hard impact compared to a more clear finale. The open ending provides us with a statement on the hardness of life with good things being ‘gone with the wind’ while also showing use Scarlett’s determination and hope.

If for example the ending had involved a total split with no future possibilities this would have undermined the messages of hope, hardship and resilience, OR if their relationship was confirmed this too would have undermined the same message by essentially saying eventually you’ll live happily ever after.

Obviously the above point is still dabbling in theme, and I think what I’m discovering as I think through this is that ambiguous endings have a kind of sliding scale of openness and relation to theme.

How about some times not to use Ambiguous endings?

I hope I’ve managed to explain my new learning OK in this post – basically that open endings should be used to hone themes or with a purpose to enhance the story. It might be fun to end with considering some times open endings aren’t so great:

  • When the story is otherwise straightforward. Popping on open ending may have a number of downsides to a more traditional story, it may counter-intuitively draw too much attention to the tale and you don’t want readers to be forced to examine something that is simply meant to be enjoyed.
  • When it has a lot of practical relevance to the characters or world you created. Imagine if Lord of the Rings ended openly – Frodo biffs the ring and the story did actually fade out like the moment in the movies. To be fair this could have created quite the case-study as LOTR does actually have a lot of themes, however ultimately there was a whole world and characters created impacted by the climax of the story, leaving it open would be too literally frustrating and no amount of theme would soothe it.
  • When the thematic meaning is more powerful closed – I don’t think open ends are an instant win in terms of theme heavy stories or injecting meaning. Sometimes a story is stronger both on the surface and thematically with closure. for example Annihilation works because the themes of personal change don’t really lend themselves to resolution, in fact solid closure would undermine that theme. If however you look at something like the Matrix – a reasonably thematic film, it could have ended more openly with Neo becoming the one and then credits rolling – but I don’t think the various themes of escaping the system, discovering your true self etc would have been as strong as having Neo telling us this is how the war ‘starts’.

Funnily enough I always struggled in English class to get behind literary analysis etc, and for a long time I found it quite pompous when people went on about the ‘subtext’ of stories, but these days I can’t get enough, I love analysis!

So thoughts on the topic – any examples of open ended ambiguous endings of movies and books?

Any examples of it done terribly?

Any counter-examples to the above thesis?

Review: Pyramids (Discworld)

Pyramids Ebook Book Cover by Terry Pratchett

Continuing on my read-through of Discworld Novels, Pyramids is a bit of a favourite, funnily enough not because I think its particularly above the other novels, just that its one of the first ones I ever read, and because my older brother owns the book I’ve also read it many more times throughout my adolescence.

Pyramids is a bit of an interesting one – sitting in the minority as a ‘stand-alone’ Discworld novel this is our only version with Pteppic – a reluctant Prince of ‘Jellybaby’ a satire of ancient Egypt.

Similar to my comments of Wyrd Sisters, in Pyramids one feels that Pratchett is perhaps easing off the satire, or more precisely, added more traditional story telling to the plot alongside the riffing on the world and tropes that accompany Discworld novels. Along with this point I also feel that Pyramids marks a bit of a turning point, where up to this stage I felt that Pratchett had more skewered fantasy tropes for storylines and played the social commentary as gags throughout. Pyramids feels more like Pratchett has allowed some traditional storytelling to be included (e.g. Pteppic actually learns to be a pretty bad-ass assassin) while also turning up the social commentary several notches.

Just by way of examples, Pratchett shows the country of ‘Jellybaby’ as literally and figuratively stuck in the past, objective progress held back by continually building pyramids for dead kings, despite having no wealth to do so. Economic and personal philosophy collide when the pyramid workers find through timey wimey manipulates they can multiple themselves and their work-crew.


A funny side-note: rereading these books makes me realize that Pratchett did not like traditional love stories, although from his choices I can’t work out whether he likes to spin tropes, or just maybe feels so awkward he prefers to not to go there. For example poor Rincewind falls for his love interest, only to have them fall for someone else upon immediately meeting them. Mort doesn’t end up with the obvious crush, but falls for the girl-next-dimension? Pteppic almost gets into a Lannister type conundrum with an awkward resolution at the last minute. I might have to review this upon getting through more of the ‘Guards’ series…

Review: Dota Dragons Blood Book 2

Hmmm. To scathe or not to scathe.

‘DOTA: Dragon’s Blood’ Book 2 in the works • l!fe • The ...

I have a bit of a confession to make.

Waaaay back when in the ‘olden times’ when I started putting reviews online, I sorta hoped to be a snarky, critical and funny reviewer and tended to not hold back on negative reviews. Over the years, I’ve learnt a few things, namely that snarky is kinda what everyone wants to do, but is a little bit single-laned and risks just kinding being a jerk and not really making good connections for an aspiring writer.

Anywho the confession is that the second season or ‘book’ of Dota Dragon Blood made be want to be snarky again.

Instead I will mostly behave myself and try to breakdown and provide a fair review of the show. I didn’t really do a long review of the first season so will quickly summarize:

In general I though the first adaption was pretty good, the creators had been pretty effective in supplying a handful of game characters with strong development, a few original beats and generally carved an interesting storyline.

So come season 2. Interestingly a lot of the online discussion (at least on Reddit) has gone the opposite with what I’m used to with the internet and sort of been quite apologist with the season, stating a few pacing errors and underdevelopment (I’m used to any flaw in a show being lambasted angrily in entitled fashion)

But for me I found the season pretty, well, shit.

Other reviews have claimed pacing issues where they felt like story lines could have been dwelt on and enjoyed more fully, however I suspect the underlying issue is a lack of quality and the idea of spending more time on plot points makes me cringe.

It’s hard to explain without spoilers so consider from here on out a big SPOILER WARNING

I think the first issue comes from lore. Lore is always a challenging aspect of fantasy story-telling, I do feel like many fantasy stories have an issue where the introductory tales are that much more interesting because you tend to get vagabond type characters (exiled princess, innocent farm-hands etc) bouncing around in a fantasy setting and any magical world-building kind of just is what it is. As stories go on there are major challenges keeping consistent, and not losing good story elements in the mix of keeping up with the characters progression (e.g. as characters become mighty magicians, warriors and rules).

In Dragon’s blood I think this is evident, especially with Mirana who basically goes from being a relatively lonely exile to being enmeshed in the politics of the ‘Helio Imperium.’ In my opinion the politics didn’t really fit well with the Dota story, although this slides halfway into my next point, where the overall Lore and story get very blurry. We’ve got Terrorblade the big bad basically wanting to destroy reality, elder dragons which are essentially pillars of creation, and have a kind of aloof / dragon motivations for reality, Selemene, who a Moon Goddess, but its not too clear exactly where fits in with the other lore. Then we’ve got this empire that Mirana is struggling with, and Invoker who is up to something in the mix too.

I think the problem is not so much that there is too much going on, its that it becomes increasingly unclear as to the relevance of each matter to the situation. Something like Mirana having a clear motivation to rule the Empire in order to challenge Terrorblade, or knowing that political chaos helps the big bad or something. The twist that the trusted advisor character Kashurra was some sort of massive chaos dragon didn’t feel remotely logical, nor did Mirana’s reveal of being the ‘Worldwrym’

From a character point of view, Dragon’s blood felt weird, like leaning into the very idea that I thought the show was avoiding – having game characters just show up be like ‘I’m a main character now’ (or not) – a lot of fans seemed to like the portrayal of Lina, I found the character to violate most good story telling advice by essentially just being motivated by whatever the story wanted at the time, alongside having poorly timed and uninspired flashbacks.

Just to backtrack a bit – the season isn’t a total bust – there are some very cool animations and action sequences. There are some good moments throughout. I suspect the major problem is that if one were to do a beat by beat analysis and ask ‘what was the point of this?’ it would just be revealed to be a muddle.

In some peak irony, the story actually feels a lot more like a video game – e.g. the plot exists to create ever increasing action sequences until a final boss.

I am keen to see where the series goes from here. A lot of people are trying to say ‘don’t compare to Arcane’ but really I think its obvious which series is more worth the watch.

So – have you seen Dragon’s Blood – thoughts?

On Writing: Tone

Don’t take that tone with me!

What are Some Tone Words? – INK Blog

So a topic that has been banging around in my head for a while is ‘tone.’

Tone to me is a very unusual topic because you don’t really hear much about it as a successful writing technique, its usually when a story goes wrong that you see reviews talking about ‘mismatched tone’ or ‘tonal problems’ or ‘weird tone’

What is tone? Even defining tone is a little odd, I sort of see tone as a mixture of voice and mood. Tone is connected to the emotion(s) of a piece but I wouldn’t say its just the feeling, its more the matching of the medium to the content in a way that suits the overall message.

Which is basically just a floopy way of saying that tone is something you don’t want to be jarring and inconsistent.

As mentioned above, tone is often something that is criticized about a piece so I will start with some tonal errors I’ve observed or heard reviewers state, and then go from there to try and work out what ‘good’ is.

Jumpy issues

This error/issue is when a work has a wildly inconsistent tone and/or does not manage changes in tone throughout the piece well. A common challenge is poorly timed humour. This is a tricky one as humour often works because its unexpected AND often writers will want to try and soften dark/serious scenes with a little brevity. The problem in my mind is one of timing, and style of humour. Cheesy puns and one liners do not sit well with reasonably serious climatic plot moments, however on the other side, sarcasm and dark jokes may well.

It’s not just humour though, most works of fiction will vary in tone within and between scenes. However abrupt, not-signaled or mismatched changes remind audiences they are reading/viewing a (bad) work of fiction.

Too much

Another issue I’ve noted is having too much consistency, so that the book/movie/show gets stale very quickly. I’ve notice this particularly for ‘gritty reboots’ where the writers are trying too hard to be dark and so the whole piece is heavy and grimy, its not just boring but I think it also lessens the impact of the story which is (almost always) about some sort of change. But its not just grimdark themes, comedies that never relent with the ‘fun’ can get cringey and shallow without some variation.


Kind of combining the issues of above, sometimes tone outright misses the point of its own material. I remember a scene from Transformers 2 (perhaps low-hanging fruit) where whatever that swooping rotating shot is called, literally spun around the two main characters having a banal conversation something like 3 times. I’m not trying to call out editing or movie techniques but more that the ‘tone’ created by the epic camera work did not match the tone of the dialogue or purpose of the scene.

Mismatching is quite a tricky one because in my opinion the writer decides how to present their material and in part this is what makes a story, for example a fight scene can be depicted many different ways and in part its up to the writer to determine this, I guess a mismatch is when there is an obvious sense that the writer didn’t intentionally match up the elements of the scene and its coming across weird.

At this point its possibly worth discussing what actually makes tone? As I’ve been talking about issues and errors as if this is totally obvious.

This is very much just my take on it – happy to be corrected or to get feedback on the matter. As mentioned earlier in the post tone is a bit of a blurry concept, but I think the main considerations for tone are:

  • How serious is your prose? Are your words heavy or light?
  • What is the mood of the scene and how does the prose reflect this?
  • What is the combined feeling or effect of other writing elements, pacing, word choice, characterization?

Its actually quite hard to provide an example because the beauty of writing is how you use words to create that sense of story, so I can’t really say X will make your book feel Y, but if I could something like a light-hearted tone could be created with shorter words, and sentences, faster pacing and metaphors that added jokes to the prose. Whereas a dark and emotional story could have longer sentences with metaphors with sinister implications.

Good Tone

What makes good tone? Given this weird situation where usually its problems that get notices, tone is very much like other writing techniques that are meant to disappear when used correctly – but what follows is what I think makes for good use of tone:

It strengthens the story

As implied by saying mismatched tone is bad, what you want the tone to do is backup what is happening in your story. The main character is coming to a horrible realization? You want the tone of the scene to match this, you’re trying to lighten the mood the same.

It varies

I don’t think entire pieces have the same tone, similar to pacing and tension tone changes throughout a story. Often becoming heavier and more serious as stories move towards a climax (not always though, sometimes the climax is reached through increasing ridiculousness and mayhem). What is good tone though is having change and shifts make sense and be ‘invisible’ to the reader. As mentioned with humour, changes in mood are often signposted and eased into with techniques such as foreshadowing. TV shows and Movies have an interesting advantage over prose in that often music is used to signal shifts in mood, whereas a writer must skillfully only use words.

While tone can change throughout a story, its important for a writer to have a sense of what a reader’s limit would be. Often an individual scene is about change, so one could expect perhaps a tonal shift within scenes, but I would hesitate to have too many changes within one scene.

But some invariability

While much of this post I’ve been advocating for variability, I also think that a story needs an overarching tone, which is invariable. This is hard to explain, by this I mean that whatever changes occur in the story there is some consistent sense, within the ‘voice’ of the piece. An example would be Lord of the Rings (which will always be my go-to for examples) despite having a fairly consistently darkening of tone throughout, always has a sense of what I can best describe as ‘historical seriousness’

Perhaps I am drifting a little into ‘voice’ territory but often the overarching sense of tone is established by the narrator or the Point of View. Its a sense that even though tone can vary throughout, you’d not going to see a anachronistic pun in Game of Thrones, or full frontal nudity in a Marvel Movie.

Anyway I think mostly I have achieved what I want to achieve by this post (which is confusing myself even more about tone) so over you guys.

What are your thoughts on tone?

Do you have any examples of terrible tone erros?

What about great examples of tone

Review: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd reading

Terry Pratchett's Discworld: Wyrd Sisters

Rereading the Discworld novels is a really interesting experience. I’ve read Wryd Sisters before, and to be honest not thought much about it and would have probably rated it a little low on my ranking of the series novels.

However rereading through makes Wyrd Sisters, if anything, fascinating to compare.

Technically this is book #2 of the Witches, well Granny Weatherwax was introduced in Equal Rites, but this is the first book of the coven, properly introducing Nanny Ogg and Magrat. It’s also the second such re-introduction of recurring characters (after Rincewind) and the first Discworld novel with a more ensemble cast.

Of course the other books have multiple characters, but at this point in the Discworld it feels Pratchett was still settling into recurring cast. What makes this so interesting is that it feels like the interactions between our main protagonists is much more significant than say Rincewind’s general ranting and quipping with whatever characters he ends up next to.

Also the story is much more grounded than previous – both in respects to avoiding the world/time/dimension destroying levels of the earlier books, but being more relevant to the characters at hand. Also Wyrd Sisters has a lot less fast-paced zany travel, almost a mainstay of the earlier books.

What I’m trying to say is: all in all Wyrd sisters while perhaps not reaching the heights of some of the later additions, is where one really starts to feel entrenched into the Discworld and the characters. While Ankh-Morpork is only featured briefly we start to get some of the more eccentric goings-on like the guild of thieves.