Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Jack Skellington, the "Pumpkin King", leads Halloween Town in organizing the annual Halloween celebrations, but he's tired of the same thing every year and wants something new. In the woods, he finds several trees with doors to other holiday-themed worlds and stumbles into the door leading to Christmas Town. Jack returns home to show everyone what he found and find a way to explain its strangeness, ultimately deciding Halloween Town will take over Christmas this year.
Jack assigns the residents many Christmas-themed jobs, but they do it in the most Halloween way possible. Sally, a Frankenstein-esque creation of local mad scientist Doctor Finkelstein, has a vision of a burning Christmas tree and warns that their efforts will end in disaster. Jack dismisses the warning and assigns her with making him a Santa Claus suit. He also tasks mischievous trick-or-treating trio Lock, Shock and Barrel with bringing Santa to Halloween Town and tells Santa he will be handling Christmas in his place this year. Against Jack's wishes, they deliver Santa to Jack's long-time rival Oogie Boogie: a bogeyman with a passion for gambling, who plots to play a game with Santa's life at stake. Sally attempts to rescue Santa but is captured.
Jack departs to deliver presents in the real world, but they frighten the humans, who contact the authorities, who shoot Jack out of the sky. Jack survives and crashes in a cemetery, but Halloween Town believes him to be dead. He feels bad about the disaster he caused but realizes this has reignited his love of Halloween. Determined to fix his mess, Jack returns home to rescue Santa and Sally and defeat Oogie. He apologizes for his actions to Santa, who is furious with Jack but assures him he can still save Christmas. Halloween Town celebrates Jack's survival and return. Santa makes it snow in Halloween Town, fulfilling Jack's original dream of bringing the Christmas spirit to his people.
Carly: I just love the art style of this movie. I’m a big claymation fan too. Rewatching as an adult, man it gets dark. The fact that everyone is okay with what the doctor does to Sally, is really sad. Even for a scary spooky place. I love slash find it very sad that everyone in town wants to make Jack happy so they try to change themselves and their whole being for him. But they can’t fully do it and are still themselves. If you think about it in an awful way, this is basically the popular straight white guy going through a midlife crisis and trying to make the whole world change around him. But I don’t like that vision I’ve just created, so I will ignore what I just said. Anyway, this movie is great. What did you think?
Jeni: Love. That’s all. I just love it. The lore, the aesthetic, the actors, the animation. I always forget it’s a Disney movie because it’s such a weird film for them. I read that they expected it to flop so didn’t really give it much of a chance in terms of a theatrical release but then it actually sold really well and could have done better but was pushed aside to make room for the other films they had planned. So most cult films don’t do well in theaters, but this movie did, especially considering that Disney didn’t really give it a fighting chance. And Disney realizing they could start merchandising and sell it from Halloween through Christmas definitely didn’t hurt. Also if you’ve never read the poem that the movie is based on, you definitely should. So, what’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?
Carly: Interiority. Interiority is showing the character processing what’s happening on the page. It’s giving us insight into their inner world. Basically, everything that starts with in, because we’re IN their heads/minds. So normally, this is a hard topic to cover with movies. Because interiority is less common in movies. It’s still there, but is often very hidden away or hard to pinpoint. And that just shows how different books and movies are as a medium. In movies you have so much visual storytelling that you can rely on to show different things, including reflecting interiority, that you don’t need it as much. An actor can portray interiority physically much better than physicality can be written. Flashbacks can be quick flashes that don’t interrupt the flow of the story. Imagery can be used to show how a character is feeling and why they are feeling that way. All of these things are very difficult to pull off in a book.But most importantly, a book is a different medium that typically should be engaged with for longer than two hours. And because of that, getting into a character’s head is way more important. Books rely on the character reader relationship more than movies rely on the character viewer relationship. With books you need to understand the character to want to stay on the journey with them. But movies can throw in more explosions for entertainment. The biggest thing is that movies can’t get into the heads of characters. It is their failing while books can have that much closer intimacy. That being said, we picked this movie because it is a musical. And musicals are often all about interiority. The songs are all interiority. We learn so much about the characters, their feelings, their thought processes, their history, through the songs.
Jeni: Right, so, interiority is about what’s happening inside your main character. This is your best tool to help the reader bridge the gap between what your character does and why they take those actions and make those decisions. And there’s a lot to take into account when you’re building up interiority. I do want to say that most authors aren’t great at adding interiority on a first draft, so this is often something that comes in revisions. So, let’s break down what exactly interiority consists of. It helps if you have a little knowledge of how humans experience events and interpret information. Fortunately, brain science has our back on this. When we interact with a stimulus, in a split second, our brains recall any experience we’ve had with something similar and creates a thought, which then triggers emotions that correspond with that thought. Those emotions trigger the brain to release the associated chemicals that make us feel that emotion somewhere in our body. And it all happens so fast that we often aren’t even aware of it. When it comes to breaking that down on the page, we need to see those elements: thoughts, emotions, and visceral feelings/body language. That helps the reader connect with what the character is experiencing, and it helps us make sense of why characters react the way they do. So, in the movie, when Jack sings about being bored with the routine in his life, this is largely showing his thoughts and connecting those to his emotions. We see the body language through things like the shape of his little eye sockets changing to show facial expressions. How a skull’s eye sockets can change is not something we are supposed to question, so let’s not get into that, mm-kay? Part of the function of the first scene in a book is to establish the baseline of these reactions for the main character in terms of their ordinary world and everyday conflict and connect these to their internal GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) to set up their character arc.. For Jack, it’s him being very gracious as the other residents of Halloween Town shower him with adoration. We don’t realize right away that this even is a conflict, but as he sneaks away, we start seeing that things aren’t quite as they seem, and that leads to him singing/thinking about his boredom aka his internal GMC. Here’s my regular plug for The Emotion Thesaurus and One Stop for Writers in general because their thesauruses are super helpful when it comes to interiority.
Carly: Exactly, I like to say that interiority is basically the why of everything. It’s why your character reacts a certain way, it is the context behind their actions. So I love that. Now when it comes to POV (point-of-view) interiority is incredibly important. If you ever get the advice to “dig deeper” what they usually mean is that we need more interiority in a section. It means that we need to understand why your character is acting a certain way, what has triggered their response and why is it the way it is? Is their heart racing because last time they were in this situation someone got hurt? And this is why it is so important to take your POV into consideration. A deep POV is going to have more interiority because we are closer to your character and digging deeper into their heads. The balance of interiority versus exterior action will be different depending on narrative distance, but it’s still necessary in any story. The deeper the POV the more interiority we’ll have. This is easy to see in deep 3rd person and 1st person perspectives, Whenever you get a little glimpse as to the why of something, that’s interiority. But in omniscient it can be harder to see and to weave in naturally. But often it will come from the narrator telling the reader why a character is so upset or reacting a certain way. Instead of hearing their thought process, we’re being told from the omniscient narrator’s perspective what the context is. But you tend to get less of it the further away from the character we are. You need to strike a balance between interiority and action. I like to say that interiority is often the good telling. You can slip it in really quickly and succinctly to give your reader a quick and dirty explanation of the why of an action. It can be as simple as “the last time they were here, so-and-so died” and that’s really good telling. Or it can be more complex as a character is organizing and processing their thoughts, especially in the reaction phase of a scene (see our episode on scene structure). At that point you can take the time really dig into things like Sally does when she has a solo song.
Jeni: Yes, POV will make a big difference in how you approach interiority. Another element to think about is the narrative voice. So, remember that voice is essentially how you show the narrator’s personality. Most of the time, this will reflect the main character, but even when it doesn’t, narrative voice can inject microtension, which shows that there is something more beneath the surface of events. Consider how the narrator’s personality might lead them to comment on or notice things that someone else might not and how that can reflect what’s going on inside the character. Movies sometimes use voiceover to show interiority, which if you have listened to our other episodes, you may know I am not generally a fan of voiceover. In this movie, the songs show the interiority, which is much more engaging to me. Part of the way it gets across what the character is feeling is the tone of the song. Like, “Sally’s Song” is where she’s thinking about how everyone is all excited about the plan to take over Christmas but she’s genuinely worried what it mean for Jack, and the song itself is slow and sad. This is easiest with first person or a deep third person because the narrator and main character are the same. So in terms of voice, that’s just how the main character would express that interiority in their own mind. With a limited third person or omniscient, it can be a little trickier because the narrator’s voice and personality might not match exactly what the character is feeling. To use my favorite example of omniscient narrators, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, there’s always the sense that the narrator is sad for the characters, even when something good happens to them. I find it endlessly amusing as a reader, which is part of why I love that narrator so much. But back to my point, which is that the sad voice actually creates a contrast that highlights how happy the characters are and so emphasizes their interiority through the personality of the narrator.
Carly: Totally. And that balance also varies by age category and genre, quite a bit. All books have some level of interiority, but often middle grade books have less of it. Part of that is that the characters have literally less history to draw from, being under 13. But also it is because the audience has less patience for long sections of interiority. You want to keep those moments simple and to the point. Whereas a really moody YA book or and adult romance are going to have a ton of interiority because that is what the reader is going there for. In an adult romance, most of the conflict is interior conflict and it is about how the characters will grow into a person that can be in that relationship. Because of that, they have a lot of interiority to express because their biggest obstacles will come from their past history and their past mistakes. So we really need to dig into the why of their reactions at any given moment. Why can’t they be together? Well obviously because they had their heart broken before. And when it comes to YA, well all the moody teens are sitting around thinking about their ennui, so a book for them should reflect that. Or was that just me? Have I discovered some interiority of my own? Anyway, really take into consideration the reader you are aiming for and the genre expectations when you are playing with your interiority. So in this movie, basically all of the interiority is put into song. And that’s because it is a family movie. The adults want that context and insight, while the kids will be a little less interested. So the movie disguises the interiority in catchy tunes that a kid will enjoy while the adult gets that juicy context to mull on. It is the perfect balance so that they can appeal to their different audiences. A genre that is more based in high-octane action may have less interiority. Or it may pepper it in throughout and focus less on the reaction part of a scene where the character processes all that has happened. Or maybe you’ll find you really need that break in action to give readers that up and down energy. Just make sure you are finding time and small moments to connect your reader to your character, give us that context.
Jeni: Beyond the balance of internal and external, you also need to think about show versus tell. This is one place where movies and books really differ. It’s generally a lot easier for movies because the actor’s whole job is to make sure the viewer understands what’s going on inside them through their actions and nonverbal communication. Or in this case, the animators. Again, not getting into the logistics of a skull’s eye sockets moving. But this movie does do some other interesting things like the mayor having different faces for his different emotions. For books, it’s up to the author to make sure that is coming across. It’s tempting to skip over interiority in the name of “show not tell,” but those reactions are super important. It’s really about considering what you need to show and what you need to tell. Showing is about detailing what is happening in real time. It generally takes a lot of words. Telling is summarizing and should take fewer words when it’s being done well. My guideline for showing and telling is to show what will have an impact on the reader and tell things that the reader needs to know for context and/or to understand what’s happening but won’t necessarily have a big impact on them. So when it comes to interiority, that means we generally want to summarize/tell most thoughts and emotions. Quick note that despite common writing advice, yes, it is totally okay to name emotions. In fact, sometimes it’s even necessary and can be confusing if you rely solely on body language. My best advice about how to do this is to wrap that name of the emotion with a body language or visceral response. And then that’s where you want to focus your showing effort (and word count)--on body language and visceral reactions and how that leads to the character expressing their reaction (aka dialogue, external action, etc.). Because that’s the part that is going to impact the reader the most, so that’s where we want the narrative to focus. Again, this is a guideline. You can absolutely use a well-placed word or phrase that “tells” and has a lot of impact. That’s almost always a result of having built up to that point with showing. In an omniscient POV, you can show these reactions from secondary characters as well, but be thoughtful about how and when you do that because it can still come across as head-hopping and be jarring for readers. When you’re writing in a limited POV, you can still hint at secondary characters’ interiority by showing their external reactions (facial expression, gestures, posture, etc.) and then having the narrator draw conclusions. Lastly, I want to mention that when you establish the characters’ GMCs early in the story, it means that a lot of the interiority will be more calling back to that GMC than having to give a bunch of new information. So that helps with the balance of showing and telling too.
Carly: Yes, exactly. And finally, you want to make sure the interiority reflects the character arc throughout the story. The interiority needs to change as your character grows. They should be reacting less based on their history and more based on the conflicts that have arisen during the book. It is how you will show that they have grown. So when Jack realizes that he has ruined Christmas and he actually loves Halloween, we get a song that shows that. He reflects on all he has done and how it has failed. In this reflection he sees how he has changed and that he wasn’t ready to give up on Halloween. His interiority has changed with his character arc. We see that he responses aren’t in reaction to his boredom, but in reaction to how he is affecting others. You want the interiority to reflect the new stimuli for your character as they grow. What have they learned and how does that change their responses? Books are about characters changing and if we go back to Jeni’s brain chemistry explanation, we see that our minds are processing a lot of information very quickly. And in order to change a character’s response, you need to change the stimuli that informs on their response. So we need to change the interior stimuli throughout the book. Slowly replace that original context with new moments from your story. And as these moments replace that history, the character will start to respond differently. So as their character arc changes, the interiority will shift to reflect that.