About Other Stories

Stuff I Do and Don’t Like in Stories

One of my favorite things about stories is that each individual person has aspects of storytelling that they love to see–and aspects they don’t love to see. Whether you’re talking about genres, tropes, themes, or more complicated concepts, our personal preferences can be really revealing. They also can guide us in finding new stories to explore and other people we can geek out with! So today, drawing from a few posts I wrote on my old blog over the years, I’m going to share some of my personal preferences: what I do and don’t like in stories.

Stuff I Like

  • Speculative fiction, especially in the YA category. My favorite genres, unsurprisingly, are the ones that I write: fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, mostly in the YA age category. Speculative horror especially is something I’m interested in exploring at the moment!
  • Good marginalized representation, especially of disabilities. Everyone deserves to have stories that reflect their lives, but many groups of people, due to their general marginalization in society, have also been marginalized in storytelling. I especially jump at the chance to read about disabilities, whether mental, physical, or even fantastical, because that’s a huge part of my life that I never used to see in stories. (Like many people, I prefer #ownvoices work because it’s a little more likely to avoid stereotypes, but there are exceptions!) Finding something that connects with the parts of you that feel most isolated and unrealized is always such a beautiful moment.
  • Religious themes without preachiness. Religion/spirituality is another important aspect of my own life that I’d like to see more in stories. I’m not looking for anything too preachy, but I love it when commercial fiction includes religious themes and/or religious representation. Fantasy religions can be especially fun to explore. I love me a scary eldritch god!
  • Complex family dynamics. Once again, family is something that really matters to me, but I also know how difficult and emotional family life can be. Fictional explorations of the horrific and beautiful realities of family relationships speak to me a lot.
  • Strong psychological or time-related twists. Good twists that shift the reader’s entire perspective on the story because of point-of-view wonkiness always get me. It doesn’t matter if I predicted them or not; I just want to explore how different realities can be created by where you’re standing.
  • Story retellings. Likewise, I really enjoy seeing the different ways different people can rewrite the same basic story, and knowing that something is part of a long cultural tradition gives it greater weight for me. So I’m a fan of stories that retell fairytales, folktales, mythology, classic literature, and the like!
  • Nontraditional formats. Art in general is something I’m enthusiastic about, so when authors play around with different formats to tell a story, my interest is piqued! I struggle with novels in verse and with audio-only formats, but otherwise, I love to see that creativity in action.
  • Magical women, especially with psychic-ish powers. Look, women are awesome, and I love seeing them wield a ton of power in a magical, non-physical way. (It’s kind of a metaphor for femininity being a valuable force instead of just masculinity, and there are also disability parallels.) I especially like telepathy and empathy because I’m very much about interiority and emotional connection.
  • Characters who love stories. I tend to shy away from stories that feature writers as characters, but I do love seeing book lovers or other people who are enthusiastic about stories. Like, hell yeah! Stories are awesome! Libraries are awesome! Art is awesome! I understand you, character.
  • Cats or other fun nonhuman sidekicks. Sometimes these are AIs, in science fiction, or talking objects, in fantasy, but generally, these sidekicks are nonsentient beings who hang out with the main characters and show off their quirky personalities. Cats especially I decided I love after seeing Captain Marvel. (I mean, I love cats anyway, but I need more of them in stories now.)
  • Robots with souls. In retrospect, my long-standing love for this trope may have to do with the fact that robot characters are often autistic-coded. Regardless, I am super into stories where a robot (or clone or other humanish nonhuman) proves themself to be a person with a soul of their own, basically, with emotions and dreams and especially romance. Not all those things are required for personhood, obviously, but I love to see them!
  • Slow burn and friends-to-lovers romances. Many common story tropes are romantic in nature, and these are two favorites of mine that fit well together. I’m a fan of a slow burn that ratchets up the tension and allows the emotional bond to grow, and watching two friends fall into romantic love makes my heart melt. I am, after all, demisexual. Mutual pining is also fun to see!
  • Romantic partners sleeping together non-sexually. Adding to that, I really love the soft, safe intimacy of (potential) romantic partners sleeping in the same room or even bed without it turning sexual. Like… it’s so nice. (Versions of this trope that are more about the growing tension are good too, LOL.) But basically, any romantic stuff where the characters are vulnerable with each other and that vulnerability is treated with respect and love and protectiveness from the other person–I want it.
  • Trying to “hack” emotions, especially romantic love, with logic and science. On the one hand, I like trying to make things make way more logical sense than they actually do. I am a categorizer and organizer. But on the other hand, I appreciate the utter chaos and randomness of love, how it can come from unexpected places and at any moment. I appreciate the utter chaos of humans. We are so weird, and I love it.

Stuff I Don’t Like

  • Historical fiction on well-trodden ground. Historical fiction is probably my weakest point when it comes to general genres. The stories in this genre that I do enjoy usually include speculative aspects and/or explore events or identities that are less represented in the genre and in history education as a whole. I’m just tired of World Wars, y’all.
  • Westerns. I don’t know what it is about these, but they don’t work for me. I guess it’s the often-historical vibe combined with the rough-and-tumble edge. The Mandalorian is the closest to an exception here I can think of, and it’s science fiction/fantasy with a cute baby, so.
  • Really gritty or grimdark vibes. As indicated above, gritty, rough-and-tumble stories aren’t my style, and I don’t need depressing grimdark stuff in my life either. I’m okay with a fair bit of violence, and emotionally dark stuff can be fine, but I usually want some ultimate ray of hope–or at least clearer lines about what’s right and wrong.
  • Bad marginalized representation. When there’s a lack of representation, that’s plenty bad enough. Adding harmful representation that leans on stereotypes and treats marginalized groups with disrespect, dehumanization, or general disregard is not okay. Now, it’s important to note that different people in marginalized groups have different experiences, and a story not reflecting your own personal experience does not mean it’s harmful. But I want to read honest portrayals that aren’t distorted by prejudice so I can learn from them. I don’t want unconscious biases to be reinforced.
  • Too much “masculinity”. As a woman who’s always been pretty feminine and as a fourth wave feminist both, I don’t want stories that only value traits currently seen as “masculine” in our culture. I don’t want female characters who only matter because they’re physically tough and unemotional. I don’t want male characters who have to always be either violent or uncaring in order to be taken seriously. There’s too much of that out there right now. I want women who are strong and feminine, and I want men who are soft and sweet.
  • Heavy sexual content. I can handle sexual content, but I’m pretty vanilla and get grossed out at times when there’s too much detail. So if I start feeling like a book is sacrificing the plot for the sex scenes, I’m not into it. I’m not into much visual nudity for the same reason. Obviously, this one is very much an individual preference!
  • Strong focus on sports/cooking. Look. I can’t do sports, and I hate cooking, so for me, it’s hard to get into stories that have a strong focus on those topics. It’s really a me thing.
  • Novels in verse/anthologies. As I said earlier, novels in verse, where the story is told entirely in poetry, don’t work for me most the time. The same is true with anthologies, which collect essays or short stories. I suppose the shorter pieces of writing just leave wanting more. It’s frustrating!
  • Audio-only formats. With audio-only stories like podcasts, my brain just struggles to process it properly. I think that’s an autism thing. I often get impatient, too, because I’m a fast reader–much faster than talking.
  • Characters who are writers. This is another one I mentioned earlier, but for me, when characters are writers, it feels too… self-inserty, I guess? It rings false to me somehow. Part of this might be because the first writer-character I ever read was Jo March in Little Women, and I was mad that she was so nonfeminine compared to me. It made little Kira feel like she wasn’t cool or tough enough to be a writer. So. 🤷‍♀️
  • Real-life animals as main characters. Again, this for me feels too false. The only exceptions are stories with cats as main characters, because I’ve lived my whole life with cats and I suppose they feel more like people to me than other animals do. Otherwise, my disbelief resists this suspension.
  • Teenage girls thinking they’re not good enough for a guy. Okay, so this has just been my life most of the time? And I don’t want it. I don’t want to suffer through it anymore. I want girls in stories to be confident or at least not self-hating when it comes to romance. Because I want to see them deserving that love without question. Teenage girls especially get enough crap already.
  • Animal deaths, especially violence towards cats. I can handle some of this, but I’m very sensitive about deaths of and violence towards animals, especially when it’s cats. Have I mentioned that I love cats yet? Because I do.

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear about your own preferences in the comments. Again, these are individual likes and dislikes, so there’s no expectation of agreement and we don’t need to be starting any arguments, LOL. Related recommendations are also appreciated!

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About Other Stories

Classic Literature Curriculum Challenge

This blog post was first shared on my old website in March 2020, and I’ve made minor additions since then.

One of the most common discussions in the children’s literature community is that of the English curriculum, which primarily consists of classic literature. Unfortunately, the classic literature used in the canon often lacks important, diverse representation in both the characters and the authors. Diverse representation matters because different perspectives offer a greater depth of knowledge about life and because it offers everyone the chance to see themselves in stories, which can help with connecting to and enjoying those stories. It also shows an understanding of the value and realities of those who don’t fit the “defaults” our society has decided upon.

The deeper I got into my own English education, which included a BA in the subject, the more I myself became frustrated with the lack of diversity. That lack was all the worse because of how many of the authors and even stories we read in school were repeated, over and over. I hated that I’d read so little classic literature from marginalized people (or in a variety of genres or from a variety of countries) but that I’d read Nathaniel Hawthorne over six times in school–though I do like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Obviously, this problem is partly because of an inability to coordinate curriculum across schools and teachers to prevent repetition, but I think it also emphasizes the importance of teachers seeking different books to teach.

One of the solutions is to include more modern literature in the English curriculum–and I love that solution! I think it definitely should be done. I think it’s also worth considering how we can include more diverse classics, however. So I decided to challenge myself to come up with a list of classic books I enjoyed that could make up an English curriculum without repeating any author. Note that this list only focuses on full-length books, not shorter pieces that are also important in literature classes, and I define “classics” herein as books with a strong existing legacy that were published before the 21st century. Those that I was required to read anytime from elementary school through my English BA are marked with an asterisk.

We’ll start first with the nineteen books that I most strongly recommend for English curriculum, followed by a longer list of other solid options. They are listed by publication date.

Classic Literature Curriculum Challenge

1) Hamlet by William Shakespeare.* This is my Shakespearean pick: a historical tragedy written in 1603 about an indecisive Danish prince who is told by his father’s ghost that the uncle who married his mother and became the new king is, in fact, his father’s murderer. The story’s downward spiral into chaos and death has always fascinated me.

2) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.* I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen book I’ve read, but this one is the most famousa regency romance published in 1813 that tells the hate-to-love story of an intelligent and independent young woman and a rich, awkward, and aloof young man who each have pride and prejudice that adds strife to their relationship. Jane Austen’s famous wit and feminist social commentary are well-displayed in this novel!

3) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.* One cannot ignore the 1818 philosophical and gothic masterpiece said to be the first English science fiction. Mary Shelley was a teenage mother stuck inside because of bad weather when she wrote this famous story, about a doctorate student who decides to create life by stitching together pieces of corpses, only to run away in horror when faced with his innocent, lonely creation. 

​4) The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. This chaotic, ridiculous adventure novel from 1844 was written by a quarter-Black Frenchman, and it is anything but boring. In it, three musketeers in the service of the King, plus a fourth newcomer, plunge into a complex personal-political drama that reveals the excess privilege of the aristocracy and the general existence of human folly. This book carries many hallmarks of the Romantic era, which is kinda my thing!

5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.* I wrote both my high school senior thesis and my English undergraduate thesis on this gothic novel from 1847, which tells you about my level of interest in it. The story follows two families with estates on the dark Yorkshire moors. They fall together in a horrific generational cycle of violent abuse and manipulation, centered around a ferociously passionate romance between adopted siblings. Both brutal and beautiful, this story combines important truth with hints of the supernatural.

6) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.* Like I said, I do honestly love Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing. His most famous piece, a historical novel published in 1850, tells the story of a 17th century Puritan woman who experiences lifelong public shaming after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The story dances beautifully on the line between fantasy and reality as it examines important American social issues revealed through the drama of many guilty parties.

7) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.* American slave narratives are overemphasized compared to other stories by and about Black people, but it’s worth reading at least one of these autobiographical accounts. I recommend this slave narrative from 1861, which exposes harsh truths about morality and privilege. The intersection between blackness and femaleness is particularly notable. Harriet Ann Jacobs also suffered from chronic health issues due to her experience.

8) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo loved to go off on long tangential rants, but I admire his interest in exposing injustice. This historical novel published in 1862, which takes place just before the famously bloody French Revolution, may be his most well-known work. (I mean, there’s a musical and everything.) It’s an incredible read with high-quality character descriptions. The story follows a man on parole for stealing bread who escapes into hiding to protect a little girl after her mother dies because of poverty-induced prostitution.

9) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.* Russian literature has its place both in my heart and in the world of classics. This literary novel from 1866 is my favorite. It’s about a young man who murders a pawnbroker and her innocent sister for money, thinking it justified by the “greater good,” and who then descends into a complicated existence full of crime, injustice, and Christianity that eventually convinces him to repent. (Fyodor Dostoevsky had epilepsy, which means this book counts partly for disability representation too.)

10) The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Wilkie Collins is an underrated favorite of mine. He was a surprisingly forward-thinking British author afflicted with a chronic form of arthritis called gout. This detective mystery novel from 1868, one of the first such stories in English, may be his best. It showcases his incredible skill with characterization through multiple perspectives, each possessing a unique voice. The story centers on the theft of an Indian diamond from a British household–a diamond that was first stolen from a shrine during the British occupation of India.

11) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.* Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who was famously and marvelously gay, authored many clever stories. My favorite is this horror novel from 1890. It follows a young man who remains forever beautiful even as he falls into corruption, while his painted portrait takes on the burden of his true ugliness. It’s simple and strange, and I love it.

12) Trifles by Susan Glaspell.* This was a required read in one of my classes every single year I was in college, and it is absolutely worth the one-time read proposed by this list. Whether you choose the prose or the play version, this American feminist murder mystery from 1916 presents a brilliant look at the question of “justice” for marginalized people.

13) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.* A true American classic in which both dreams and facades die, this literary novel from 1925 shows the darkness that underlay much of the elaborate decadence of the 1920s. I love Jay Gatsby, even though he’s a actually metaphor for the failures of my own romantic idealism, and the tragic nature of this story really appeals to me. So on this list it goes!

14) Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie is considered the English queen of crime, and I think her most inspired idea was making a gossipy elderly woman the “detective” in a series. This mystery novel, published in 1930, is the first Miss Marple mystery, where the old spinster solves the murder of a thoroughly despised town magistrate. It’s great stuff!

15) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.* This may be the most unoriginal selection on this list, since most Americans consider it to be a great classic. Nevertheless, I’ll include this historical fiction novel, published in 1960, which examines a variety of marginalized and privileged identities through the eyes of a white girl growing up in 1930s Alabama. The book inspires so much thought that I wrote a whole blog post analyzing it, which I’ll share another time. 

16) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.* This children’s speculative fiction novel, published in 1962, has already inspired and bolstered many women and girls in their academic and scientific aspirations. It tells the story of an awkward preteen girl who goes on an intergalactic journey, along with her genius little brother and a likable preteen boy, to save her missing father from a terrible evil. This book is a classic in sci-fi/fantasy, well worth reading.

17) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath’s struggle with depression, which eventually led to an early death by suicide, inspired this semi-autobiographical novel from 1963 about a college-age woman’s mental breakdown. I was stunned by how fascinating and relatable I found this book when I first read it, and I desperately wish it had been included in my school curriculum. 

18) Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. This stunningly vivid creative nonfiction volume from 1976 brings to life the family history of Alex Haley, a Black man who was able to trace his roots back to Africa. I have an interest in family history, and I recognize that there’s particular difficulty in such research for descendants of American slaves. To me, this book is a true triumph, and it ought to be read by everyone.

19) Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This isn’t my favorite of Octavia Butler’s books, but it is the most well-known and likely the most accessible for secondary education students. The prescient science fiction novel, published in 1993, presents a 2026 dystopian America in the midst of which a young Black woman with hyperempathy starts an entire new religion. It’s an interesting story, and the sequel is even better. It also opens up a pathway for readers into all the works of Octavia Butler and, further, into speculative fiction by and about Black women in general!

The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Medea by Euripedes*
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Paradise Lost by John Milton*
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville*
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen​*
​A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Dracula by Bram Stoker*
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf*
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell*
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck*
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster*
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the America West by Dee Brown
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Carrie by Stephen King
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Frindle by Andrew Clements*

What classics have you enjoyed that you think should be in the curriculum? I especially welcome more diverse picks that I’m not yet aware of!

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About Other Stories · About Writing

Inception’s Lesson for Novelists

Today, I’d like to share an analysis of the movie Inception that I posted on my original blog in December 2013. I’ve made some minor corrections, but otherwise, this is the same as it was then.

Inception poster: Four men and one woman with guns standing around on a road that's weirdly folded

A common theory states that the popular movie Inception, directed, written, and produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (plus half the cast of the Dark Knight trilogy), is in fact Nolan’s metaphor for film-making. If you haven’t seen Inception, I recommend you stop reading now and go watch it a) because there are tons of spoilers in this post and b) because it’s one of my favorite movies and thus you must watch it.

Basically, Inception is a science fiction movie about an “extractor” who gets into dreams to steal ideas/secrets/information. He’s been separated from his family because of this ability and is now doing it illegally. In Inception, he’s given the task to instead implant an idea, which is considered impossible, and is told that in return for completing the mission he will be allowed to return home.

If you want to know more about the film-making theory, here’s one article about it. As I said, it’s very commonly accepted. What I’m going to talk about today is a slightly altered angle on the topic. Because the arts are so intermingled, I think it is very possible to make a case that Inception is also about writing. Here’s how it reflects the process of writing a novel.

WHAT THE CHARACTERS’ ROLES ARE

In the film-making theory, each character has a specific part to play that relates directly to the roles of film-making. Because novel-writing is a slightly more solitary task, many of these characters can be combined to represent different personas that the author takes on in order to build the perfect story.

The main character, Dominick Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio, is said to reflect Nolan himself, i.e., the producer. In terms of the writing metaphor, Cobb thus represents the core author persona. Cobb is the leader of extraction missions and of the inception. As stated in the above-linked article, “Cobb can literally create a whole new world. Not only does he determine how he wants his target to feel, not only does he invent a story to inspire these feeling, but he also supervises the creation of an environment… in which his story will unfold.” 

Dominick Cobb

Cobb has many qualities of the stereotypical author. He has a tough life and an even worse past, which is common among artists. He struggles often with what’s real and what isn’t, which is a theme I’ll address later on. He is, in the end, alone and suffering. He makes the hardest decisions and deals with the most heartbreak of all the characters in the movie because he’s the one with the strength to do it. 

Arthur

In the film-making metaphor, Cobb’s right-hand man, Arthur, played by Joseph Gordan-Levitt, stands in for the writer/director. In this metaphor, he is merely a different side of the author. Arthur is the most practical and logical member of the extraction team, focused on how to best put the scenarios presented by Cobb into effect. He balances Cobb’s more wildly human, passionate, and conflicted nature with clean-cut decisions. Arthur also has a bit of a critical and sarcastic edge. 

As such, Arthur is the editor persona, the side of the author that balances and counteracts the other personas by presenting logic that organizes Cobb’s ideas and by questioning anything that Cobb is starting to run too far with. This persona creates the parameters of the story and works to keep those parameters running.

Ariadne, played by Elliot Page, is often overlooked in the film-making theory. Fans argue over whether she represents the writer or the production designer, all the while failing to see her most key role in the movie. Yes, she was brought into the extraction team to design and build the setting of the dreams, but this is not the reason she features so predominantly in the story. Her job did not require her to enter the inception. She chose to enter it because she alone knew what Cobb was facing and she needed to be there to help him deal with his emotions while protecting the rest of the team from the dangers his subconscious presented.

Ariadne

Thus, Ariadne is the final member of the author’s triad of psyches, the counselor persona. This side of the author contrasts the editor persona by working with the author’s emotions and the deeper meanings that they bring into the story, where the editor persona would overlook or shut those feelings down. The counselor persona helps the author overcome their personal problems while protecting the core of the story itself. The name “Ariadne” originates from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Ariadne is a princess who guides Theseus out of the Labyrinth. The counselor persona (and this Inception character) fits this exactly, pulling the author through the twists and turns of their story in order to reach the purest truth at the end.

Besides the core three, there are three other members of the extraction team, plus one important character outside the team.

Saito

First, there is Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, the man who requests the inception in the first place. Saito provides the money and the proper incentive for Cobb. In the film-making theory, he represents the studio executive, who pays for the creation of the movie. In the novel-writing theory, he instead represents the publisher, who grants the author the chance to do something real with their work, something that will give them the creative catharsis they desire, in return for what the publisher wants, which is business success. 

Eames, played by Tom Hardy, is a forger brought into the inception in order to pretend to be the subject’s godfather. This trick is used to implant the idea in the most vulnerable place of the subject’s mind. In the film-making theory, he is the actorin novel-writing, he is the basic frame of the main character. Notably, as the inception progresses, Eames no longer has to act as the subject’s godfather. The godfather begins appearing himself as a separate identity in the dream, a reflection of the subject’s own mind. This represents one of the most important parts of writing: the ideal character, after being created, takes on a life of their own and begins making decisions that the author leads them into but cannot and should not control.

Eames
Yusuf

The final member of the team, Yusuf, played by Dileep Rao, is also much debated in terms of the film-making theory. He’s a bumbling side character brought onto the team partially because they needed an extra hand to hold the inception in place, but predominantly because he created a sedative that keeps the subject locked into the near-impossible three-layer dream. Most people have concluded he represents special effects or perhaps production design, and while that might be true, I see him as actually an abstract conceptsuspension of belief, the phenomenon that allows readers to enter a story where impossible things happen and believe in those things for the sake of the story.

The final character to examine is the subject of the inception, Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy. Saito seeks out Cobb because he needs Fischer to come to a momentous business decision. The purpose of the inception is to implant the idea in Fischer’s head in a way that will make it truly take. Fischer thus, very obviously, represents the audience. Fan theorists note that the way Cobb’s attitude towards Fischer changes throughout the movie, from impersonality to actual understanding and even empathy, reflects how the producer/author, views the audience as time passes in the artistic process.

Robert Fischer

WHAT THE MOVIE’S PLOT TEACHES US

Inception begins rather confusingly with an old man and guns and Leo DiCaprio on a beach. This scene does not make sense until much later, but it’s presented first as a hearkening to the “dream within a dream” concept of the entire inception, showing how fine the line can be between reality and fantasy.

Then we move back to the actual beginning, where Arthur and Cobb are working to steal information from Saito’s mind. One of their team members fails them, and a woman named Mal shows up to betray Cobb. Because of this, Cobb and Arthur fail to acquire the information. However, Saito has in fact been auditioning them. He presents his offer: if Cobb can create the inception to convince Fischer to break up his dying father’s company, Saito will give Cobb the option to go home again.

It has been pointed out by theorists that home represents not just the producer’s personal life, but also his creative fulfillment. Though at the beginning we don’t know what it is that’s keeping Cobb from home, it’s fairly clear it has something to do with his work. This point will be discussed more later.

Cobb assembles a new team, keeping Arthur by his side and recruiting important characters like Ariadne. Through Ariadne’s lessons, we learn about how the extractions work and about the mechanics of dream-building. One important fact is that the dreams built by the extractors are filled by people created by the subject’s subconscious. This is a reflection on how readers play a large part in the interpretation of a story.

Another subject of interest appears after Ariadne builds a bridge in the dream taken directly from her own memory. Here, Cobb warns Ariadne not to use full scenes from her life, only pieces. This is a very important issue in writing as well. The author cannot help but include their experiences in their writing, but this must be done subtly or the story will fail. Soon after this, Ariadne goes too far in changing the setting of the dream, and the subconsciously created people attack her. This is a further statement on suspension of disbelief. If you take it too far, the reader’s mind will turn on the author. 

Inception poster featuring the team on collapsing city streets

Ariadne also creates for herself a totem, which is a unique object that tells her whether she’s in a dream or not. The totem is an important motif in Inception. It further centers the idea of reality vs. fantasy, that the author must work to stay aware of the lines between their real life and the story they are creating. Also of note is that the only three totems we actually see are the ones that belong to the main trio of the author’s psyche: Cobb, Arthur, and Ariadne; the top, the die, and the chess piece.

One more fact we learn from Ariadne’s training is that time in a dream moves more quickly. This is true as well for stories, which can span across years of time while in real life, only hours have passed. (It also takes way longer to create a novel than it does to read it, as you’ll know if you have any idea of the publishing process.)

At this point, the team begins planning the inception. It’s pointed out that the only way to make the idea legitimately take is to make Fischer believe it’s his own. In order to do this, they have to go to the heart and seek out a way to affect his emotions. Cobb insists that positive emotion, some sort of catharsis in the strained relationship between Fischer and his dying father, is the best way to do this, a point that might be argued. But people do love a happy ending.

As time passes, Ariadne grows more and more curious about Cobb’s subconscious. She’s seen Mal once already and finds the situation worrisome. So she connects herself into Cobb’s dreams, which are actually comprised of a series of moments that he regrets. In this, Ariadne learns of Cobb’s dark past: how Mal, his wife, went mad and killed herself, leaving behind evidence that Cobb had murdered her and forcing him to leave his children behind. Since then, Cobb’s personal life has intruded on his work, causing havoc. Horrified, Ariadne insists that she accompany the team into the inception in order to protect everyone from Cobb’s mind.

When Fischer’s father dies, Saito arranges for the team to be taken to the place of Fischer’s father’s funeral. They sedate Fischer and go into the first layer of the dream. Here, they kidnap Fischer, but during the process, Cobb’s subconscious creates a train where it shouldn’t. The team is then attacked by Fischer’s subconscious, which has been trained to recognize intruders. This, as has been pointed out by others, is a commentary on how audiences today are more aware of the media and harder to hold in a suspension of disbeliefSaito, who insisted upon coming into the inception, is shot and badly wounded. Normally, if you’re killed in a dream, you wake up, but because of the sedation they’re using, the dreamer will instead become trapped in Limbo, deep unconstructed dream space. The fact that Saito is placed in danger after having forced his way into the inception is said to mean that higher-up business people (like studio executives or publishing companies) shouldn’t risk interfering with the creative process.

With this urgent problem, the inception is forced into double-time. Eames, disguised as Fischer’s trusted godfather, Robert Browning, pretends that the kidnappers are torturing him because they want the code to Fischer’s father’s safe, in which there is a new will that would split up the company. This is where the first part of the idea is planted: that Fischer’s father doesn’t want Fischer to keep the company intact. Fischer indicates at this point that he believes his father was disappointed in him. In order to appease the “kidnappers,” however, he gives the team a random set of numbers.

At this point, the team places Fischer in a car and begin driving towards a bridge. While Yusuf drives, the rest of the team takes Fischer down into the second dream level, where time moves still slower. In this level, Cobb reveals to Fischer that they are in a dream, but places himself in the role of a trusted representative from Fischer’s subconscious. This speaks again of the growing complexity of creating fictional worlds in a culture that fights suspension of disbelief. The author must convince the reader that they are only reflecting the psyche of the reader, not working towards another motive. 

Cobb leads Fischer back to his team, and they set up in a hotel room, at which point Robert Browning appears, no longer played by Eames but now created by Fischer’s own mind. The new twist is that Browning was in fact working with the kidnappers to gain the code so that he could hide the will. Browning states that he didn’t want Fischer to rise to his father’s “last taunt”, but Cobb says that Fischer is lying.

Inception poster featuring Cobb standing in water on city streets

The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Here, the team splits up to enter a fortress in a snowy mountain area where, supposedly, Browning is keeping the secret Fischer needs to find. In the midst of this, however, things go wrong again, and the “kick” meant to wake them up goes off too early. The team makes a decision to try to hit the next kick, and Arthur, on the second level, constructs a new kick of his own using an elevator. The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Fischer and the team cut through the fortress, but then Mal appears and kills Fischer, sending him down into Limbo.

As Cobb and Ariadne arrive, Saito also dies, and they realize they have to enter Limbo in order to save both Fischer and Saito. As they do so, Cobb reveals more of his own past. Before Mal had killed herself, she and Cobb had entered Limbo, spending almost a lifetime there building a fantasy world. They had killed themselves finally in order to leave Limbo, but Mal, still believing they were in their dreams, had killed herself again to get back to “reality.” The evidence she’d left against Cobb was designed to make him join her, a trick which failed but forced him into illegal operations away from home.

Cobb and Ariadne find Fischer being held captive by Mal in a home Cobb and Mal built, and the final confrontation occurs. Cobb finally admits that he is the reason that Mal killed herself. Mal wanted to stay in Limbo, believing it to be real, and Cobb performed an inception to make her realize it wasn’t. But when they came back to reality, the idea was still there, and it drove Mal to madness. The theme behind this is fairly clear: ideas are incredibly powerful and can thus be dangerous. 

Cobb orders Ariadne to escape Limbo with Fischer when the kick comes and tells her that he is done being haunted by Mal. He will seek out Saito and find a way for them to both return to reality. So Ariadne kills herself, Mal, and Fischer and returns with Fischer to the third dream level.

On that level, Fischer faces a wall with a key code. He enters the code he spoke in the first dream level, and it opens to reveal his dying father. As Ariadne watches, Fischer speaks with his father, who says that he is disappointed, not because Fischer wasn’t like him, but because Fischer was trying to be. This implants the final part of the idea, that Fischer’s own father wants him to break up the company and make his own way in the world. The final kicks go off, and most of the group wakes up. 

We return then to the first scene, where Cobb confronts an aged Saito in Limbo, asking him to take a leap of faith and come with him back to reality. Saito agrees, and he and Cobb awake on the plane a bit later than the others. Cobb goes through the airport into America and returns home at last. He begin spinning his totem top, but then his children cry out in joy, and he runs to them, leaving the top spinning on the table. The ending throws a lot of people off because it leaves the question open as to whether Cobb is actually in reality or not. The point, as other theorists have remarked, isn’t whether it’s real or not; it’s that Cobb doesn’t stay to see. He no longer cares. The catharsis that occurs in the dream is real, even if the dream wasn’t, and that’s all that matters now. 

(I would like, however, to affirm another fan theory: some people have pointed out that the top couldn’t have been Cobb’s totem because it started out as Mal’s. They note that his wedding band appears in scenes where he’s dreaming and is gone in reality. In the last scene, the wedding band isn’t there. So the ring is his actual totem, and in the end, he is really back home. It’s a helpful note for people who need something more definite, LOL.)

WHAT MAL REPRESENTS

Mal

In that analysis, you may have noticed that I skipped around the more personal conflict, where Mal appears from Cobb’s subconscious and causes chaos and death as Cobb struggles to confront her. Let’s talk about that now!

As I said before, Cobb’s home represents creative fulfillment. If that’s so, then what does Mal represent in her constant thwarting of this goal? Well, in another article, the author proposes that Mal represents the Muse. The conflict forces Cobb to choose between Mal and Fischer, or the Muse and the audience. In other words, the producer must choose between his own personal vision, directed by the Muse, and the effect the story actually has on the audience. While this isn’t a bad theory in terms of film-making, I have a slightly different (but compatible) view.

I believe that Mal represents Cobb’s personal life. A huge issue throughout the movie, and not just with Mal, is that Cobb’s subconscious keeps leaking into the dream. Basically, he struggles to keep his personal life from destroying the story. When you’re writing a novel, it is hard to find the right balance with how much of your own emotional experience to put into it. The line is thin between a good story that uses deep truth bolstered by personal feeling to affect readers and a desperate novel-writing therapy exercise where the author tries to fix everything in their life by “escaping” from reality. I know because I’ve struggled with it when writing many of my books. It’s not wrong to cope with your personal problems through writing–that’s a lot of what you’re there to do, hence the importance of the counselor persona–but for the sake of good storytelling, you have to focus on the book, not what’s happening in your own life. You have to pick Fischer over Mal, Saito over Mal, home over Mal.

At the beginning of the movie, Cobb has let his personal life take over too much and has thereby lost his creative fulfillment. The only way to get it back is to get over Mal and focus instead on completing the inception. That is the central meaning of this movie. It’s the truth for which Inception itself became an inception in our lives.

Images via IMDB.

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Twilight and Mormon Theology

It’s time today for another repost from my old blog! This was originally shared in August 2014 and has been edited since then. Here, I discuss Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series from the perspective of Mormon theology.

Ever since it came out, Twilight has inspired a lot of love and a lot of hate. There’s plenty of existing discussion.

In terms of love, Twilight speaks to a lot of women lacking in confidence who are yearning for a special, old-fashioned romance all their own. I adored the series when I was in middle school, which is when I was both struggling and yearning the most. (Yay middle school!) It was a beautiful escape for me that included one of my favorite tropes: sharing a bed nonsexually. It also, as many YA writers will tell you, did a lot for the world of teen literature, just as Harry Potter did for children’s literature.

In terms of hate, Twilight does have a lot of problematic content. For example, Bella and Edward’s relationship sets off a lot of red flags for domestic abuse. It has some other misogyny too, with Bella often presenting as a blank slate lacking her own interests. Then there’s been plenty of that hate that occurs around most things beloved by teen girls, because we as a society devalue anything associated with femininity, especially teen femininity. Just to be clear, that is not a valid reason to hate Twilight.

In all this discussion, one topic that I haven’t seen examined is Twilight‘s deeper meaning. A lot of people see it as a shallow paranormal romance with basic entertainment value. As Stephen King once said, “Twilight is all about how important it is to get a boyfriend.” However, when taken in the context of Mormon theology, there’s a lot more to be discovered. Stephenie Meyer is Mormon, and I grew up Mormon myself. For me, reading this series was like a treasure hunt full of references that I was uniquely situated to understand. Unfortunately, a lot of the negative aspects of the series can be connected to Mormon culture too, which is a whole other post, but here, I’d like to briefly talk about the story’s thematic interpretation through the lens of this theology.

The basic plot of the Twilight series is that ordinary human Bella moves to a new town and meets Edward, a strange, beautiful, and idealized young man who turns out to be a good “vegetarian” vampire from the early 1900s. They fall in love despite being all star-crossed, and there are evil human-killing vampires who hate them, and there are werewolves who hate vampires too, and the entire time all Bella wants is to be turned into a vampire herself so she can be with Edward forever. Eventually, this does happen, and they create a space for their little family in the vampire world by proving to the bad vampires that everything’s fine.

First, the core conflict and the core romance of the series speak thematically to the Mormon vision of life after death. In Mormon belief, everyone will be sorted into three heavenly kingdoms at the Judgment Day. (A few rare individuals will go to actual hell, the Outer Darkness, but that’s mostly for Satan and his demons.) Each kingdom is good, as you will there have eternal life in a perfected body that can accomplish incredible things. The ultimate goal, however, is to reach exaltation in the highest kingdom, the Celestial Kingdom, where the best people will continue learning from God on a perfected Earth to eventually reach godhood themselves. This exaltation can only occur within family groups (married couples being the basic unit).

In Twilight, vampires represent humans post-Judgment. All vampires have perfected bodies with magical gifts, and they will all live forever. (I’m not sure that “sparkly” is exactly what a perfected body is meant to be, but, you know.) As Bella says after she becomes a vampire herself, it’s as though she was always meant to be in her vampire body.

Edward’s good vampire family specifically represents those who reach exaltation. They live in this perfected state together as a set of married couples, and they find greater meaning and purpose in that than other vampires have. Edward, of course, is initially single. However, he is forever changed by his love for Bella and thus becomes his true best self. Meanwhile, the quest for exaltation is reflected in Bella’s desire to become a vampire herself and be with Edward forever. They can each only become the perfected selves they were meant to be through the other’s influence.

In a related point of note, while the vampire’s magical powers represent the spiritual perfection that is reached after the Judgment, they also represent important spiritual gifts that people have even as imperfect human beings. (Just as Bella already had part of her gift before she became a vampire and figured out what it really was.) Many of these gifts are basic traits: faith, loyalty, intelligence. However, some of them are more on the supernatural sideprophecy, discernment, healing. You can compare the powers in Edward’s family for reference.

Finally, the bad vampires represent those who have given into sin, becoming unexalted or even demonic beings. Their blood lust is a metaphor for the intense struggle we all must go through on Earth in resisting temptation so we can become our ideal celestial selves. Giving into that sin prevents exaltation. However, as exemplified in Edward, who had a “rebellious” period, people can repent and come back from their sin. Those who don’t choose that, though, may go so far as to become demonic figures who are constantly attacking the very family unit that supports exaltation.

That’s the meaning of the core conflict and romance. Second, though, are the werewolves, who represent a specific variation of exaltation. Like vampires, werewolves are perfected celestial beings, but they reflect more directly the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Mormon theology states that the Twelve Tribes, having been scattered across the Earth, must come together to accept their true birthright of leading the Church. The werewolves’ connection to this can be clearly seen through the names of their grandparents. Jacob is a direct descendant of Ephraim, which is the birthright tribe of Israel, and through that, he is the birthright of leader of the pack. However, he didn’t want this birthright, so he left it to Sam, a descendant of Levi, which is another important tribe that watches over much of the priesthood. (The priesthood authority is held by men in the Church, which is probably why most of the werewolves are male.) In the end, the werewolves and vampires can only come together to protect their families and reach their full eternal potential once Jacob accepts his birthright. 

The love triangle plays further into this theme. Mormons believe that Gentiles can be “adopted” into the Tribes of Israel and that is how we gain eternal glory. However, Bella couldn’t become a werewolf because she didn’t have the heritage, so in order to reach her celestial ideal, she had to go the vampire route. The vampires are the “adopted” celestial beings, and Bella had to be adopted into the family through her romance with Edward so she could reach exaltation. That’s why Jacob couldn’t be the right choice for her.

Third, Carlisle represents Jesus Christ standing as the head of the exalted family. Mormons believe in Christ as their savior, same as the rest of Christianity, so he had to be included here too! Carlisle not only leads the vampire family, but he is the one who first created it and who now adopts people into it, saving those so broken they were destined to die. Like Jesus, he’s the most ancient of their family, once friends with the worst of the vampires before they fell too far. He is the one who accepted Edward’s “repentance” after his rebellion into evilness. Without Carlisle, the good vampirism wouldn’t be possible. Throughout the series, he acts as a figure of care, guidance, and protection to everyone around him, though he refuses to tolerate threats to his family. He also chooses to be a doctor because he is more gifted at saving people than any human could be. (Christ is sometimes called “the Physician.”) Carlisle is even immune to temptation. It’s really a pity the series didn’t focus more on him.

As noted previously, there are other aspects to Twilight that come from Mormonism, both as a religion and a culture. For example, Edward’s old-fashioned insistence upon getting married before he and Bella have sex and Bella’s insistence on going through with her pregnancy because she values her unborn child’s life so much reflect the Mormon belief in the sacredness of life, sex, and creation. However, the points discussed above are what I see as the most notable, and they’re what give the series a deeper, more valuable meaning.

So the next time someone tells you that Twilight is totally shallow, you’ll be able to explain how rich it is in meaning through Mormon theology! In the end, it’s not just about the importance of having a boyfriend. It’s actually about humanity’s journey towards godhood, as represented through one girl’s escapist (and often problematic) supernatural romance.

Images via Goodreads and Summit Entertainment.

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Thoughts for July 2021

General Thoughts

This year so far has proven to be difficult, though not so much as certain other years. More than anything, I’ve been struggling with a binge-eating problem that has spiraled out of control over the past few years, reaching its peak (I hope!) during the last few months, as I’ve tried to create a new life for myself post-chronic illness crisis.

I’ve restarted counseling because of this, and I’ve discovered that I have a lot of grief about what I lost in that crisis that I still need to process. It’s frustrating because I’ve had to grieve illness-related losses multiple times in the past, and I’d honestly like to move on–but I’m not emotionally ready for that, as it turns out. So I’m processing that grief now, and I’m also trying to reprioritize my writing, since working on my books has consistently been helpful during times of emotional upheaval.

Other updates from the past six months include that I’ve performed and recently finished a significant revision of #OCDStory (🥳), that I’ve finished typing up and rereading my old diaries to help me regain my memory of the crisis, and that I’ve quit attempting to obtain SSI due to the extremely restrictive limits. (I’d love it if you would sign this petition to raise those limits, which is an important issue affecting far more people far more deeply than me!)

BOOKS

New Book Recommendations First Half of 2021 with covers for EXQUISITE CAPTIVE, DON'T LOOK BACK, WOVEN IN MOONLIGHT, LET'S CALL IT A DOOMSDAY, GIRL ON THE LINE, RULES FOR VANISHING, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, THREE DARK CROWNS, THE ART OF SAVING THE WORLD, DAWN, CONTAGION, LEGENDBORN, YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, A SONG OF WRAITH AND RUIN, SLAY, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, THE ONES WE'RE MEANT TO FIND, THE CRUEL PRINCE, THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE, THE DISTURBED GIRL'S DICTIONARY, THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, THE FIREKEEPER'S DAUGHTER, THE INFINITY COURTS, TRULY DEVIOUS, THE QUEEN'S RISING, SING ME FORGOTTEN, THE FIFTH SEASON, and ARU SHA AND THE END OF TIME

Remember that you can see my full list of book recommendations here!

TV SHOWS

New TV Show Recommendations First Half of 2021 with posters for THE GOOD PLACE, WANDAVISION, SCHITT'S CREEK, MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS, THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER, QUEER EYE, SHADOW AND BONE, STAR TREK PICARD, and LOKI

MOVIES

New Movie Recommendations First Half of 2021 with posters for THINGS HEARD & SEEN, THE OLD GUARD, and SOUL

MUSIC

My Spotify moods of the month have been as follows:

  • January: “alternative poprox beats”
  • February: “alternative beats rise up”
  • March: “dark, stormy, and fierce femmes”
  • April: “deep dark indie swagger”
  • May: “alternative femme fatale beats”
  • June: “fierce femme salt”

ONLINE CONTENT

Alongside the various short posts I’ve enjoyed on social media the past six months, here are some longer pieces I’d like to recommend:

  • This article discusses the horrible experience of being a disabled person in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This thread links to a report about sexual violence at higher education institutions.
  • This thread links to a website examining the best ways to reduce police violence. (Restructuring the justice system to emphasize community welfare, restitution, and personal growth instead of punitive violence and oppression, as well as addressing systemic white supremacy, is the ultimate goal.)
  • This website lists alternate resources to call instead of the police in major U.S. cities.
  • This video explains how best to respond when you see racial (or other) harassments.
  • This website discusses Palestine and the current need for decolonization.
  • This article talks about famous artist Frida Kahlo’s experience as a woman with chronic pain.
  • This Wikipedia page lists different ways different cultures open their fairytales.
  • Giving the continuing threat of climate change-worsened natural disaster, this thread about dealing with hot weather and this thread about dealing with cold weather seem worth a read.

Thank you for reading! How have your past six months been?

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