Patrick E. McLeanAuthor: Patrick E. McLean
23 Jul 2021

Patrick E. McLean

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The podcast of author and consultant Patrick E. McLean. Currently writing and podcasting How to Succeed in Evil. And taking interesting digressions in essay and interview form.

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    How to Outline Any Story

    There is a lot of advice about how to outline a story on the internet, and almost all of it was it was useless, so I stopped trying to wade through it. Like it's just bad content marketing run amok. So I'm going to give you the most useful ways I know to understand stories. The keys to the kingdom as I understand them. And trust me, not a single one of them is "Use mind mapping software."

    Let's say you want to understand a story. A book, a movie, graphic novel, TV show, play, series of tweets, radio drama... could be anything? How do you do it? You read it, of course, but that's not enough. Because stories have a kind of magic. They transport us to another place. And, if they are well constructed, we get swept along by them in a way that makes it difficult to analyze how they work while they are working on us. In fact, if you're watching a movie and you notice something like the beginning of the third act, chances are it's not a very good movie. Because when it's good, you're so engaged, you don't even think about that kind of stuff.

    So, I think, to really understand a story, you have to outline it. And that means, reading or watching it again, and writing down the bare bones of what happens. There is simply no wrong way to do this. Should you use a spreadsheet, or a notepad or index cards or mindmapping software? The answer is yes. Whatever makes it easy for you, because, whatever tool you use, you will learn something. And that's the point.

    So everything I have to say from this point forward is just to make it more profitable for you to do. See there are two reasons to do this.

    You want to write something of your own.

    You want to enjoy every story you encounter more.

    And, for me, #2 is by far the better reason. You're increasing the value of every story you're going to encounter for the rest of your life. That's what I call leverage.

    Stories can be tricky and the process can be confusing -- especially if you've had one too many English classes recently -- So I'm going to arm you with some of the conceptual tools I use to make things clear.

    Principle #1 -- Any story is a system of systems.

    So think of the elements of a novel. Dialog, character, symbolism, description, narration, plot, chaptering, paragraphing, setting -- it could go on and on and on. There are many, many ways to combine those elements to create a good novel. And no two authors do it the same way and no two authors should.

    So, in your outline, only pay attention to the systems that are interesting to you. If you don't see any great symbols, don't go looking for them. It's not a box you have to check off. What you want to understand is one level up from that. How all these systems work together.


    Outlining a plot is as simple as writing down what happens in the beats of the story.

    Luke wants to join the rebellion

    The droids run off

    Luke chases the droids

    Luke is attacked by Sandmen and rescued by Obi-Wan Kenobi

    And from that list, you can begin to understand the story.

    If you get stuck on what's important in a scene or why it matters, you can always ask, what happens if you don't have that scene in the story? There's a lot of other ways you can [[analyze a scene]], that's going to have to be a video of its own, but most of the time if you just get the basic beats of the story down, many new things about the story will become clear and that's what you want.

    Here are the questions to start asking of the plot?

    What started the story rolling? How did the character get into this mess?

    What does the character want?

    What happens if the character doesn't get it?

    From this list of beats, you want to get THREE things. External Story, Internal Story, and Theme.

    First, what's the external story. For Star Wars, the external story is blowing up the Death Star/defeating the Empire.

    The second thing you want to understand is the internal story. What does the character need psychologically, inside themselves, to be whole? Luke has to learn to trust himself and his abilities to reach his full potential. To use the Force Luke.

    And the third thing is the theme? What's the value that every scene or almost every scene turns on? That ties the whole thing together. The theme of Star Wars, loosely, is believing in something bigger than yourself. And while Luke's story resolves powerfully on this theme when uses the Force to blow up the Death Star, so too does Han Solo's story. He doesn't believe in the Force, or the Rebellion or anything. He bails out of the fight with the Death Star because he has a price on his head. He's looking out for himself. But he changes and we see this in action when he comes back in the end to save Luke so he can blow up the Death Star. So you might say, the theme is "Only when we believe in something bigger than ourselves can evil be defeated."


    I think the most important thing you can know about any story is what genre it is in. People interested in literary fiction have looked down on genre fiction, but that prejudice certainly doesn't stop literary fiction from being its own genre. And what a genre does is set the reader's expectation of how things should be in the story. It's a set of conventions that the writer must deal with.

    Genre conventions are conventions about the way the systems of story interlock. Some of these conventions are obligatory scenes. Every thriller needs a daring escape scene. And a hero at the mercy of the villain scene. But these conventions extend to everything. Certain symbols or lines. A Bond movie isn't a Bond movie without spy gadgets, and a cool car, a scene with tuxedoes and evening gowns and the lines, "Shaken not Stirred" and "Bond, James Bond."

    Genre even extends to permissible themes. A romance novel cannot have a theme that denies that love is possible and still be a romance novel.


    Closely related to Genre is the form a story takes.

    Stories only have a limited number of forms. You could say there are five or seven or ten basic plots, and still be right. It's all in how you slice them. But if you think there are 50 basic plots, you are wrong. It may be an indefinable number, but it's finite and it's small.

    So it's also very useful to try to fit the story you outline to one of these structures.

    Dostoyevsky said there are only two plots

    Person goes on a journey

    Stranger comes to town

    Christopher Booker worked on his book Seven Basic Plots for 34 years and came up with these.

    Overcoming the Monster

    Rags to Riches

    The Quest

    Voyage and Return




    Blake Snyder, in his book, Save the Cat identified these 10 plots for film.

    Monster in the House

    Golden Fleece

    Out of the Bottle

    Dude with a Problem

    Rites of Passage

    Buddy Love


    The Fool Triumphant



    So Cowboy Movie is a genre that includes many forms of story Unforgiven is a Voyage and Return story. And you could say it was a kind of Buddy Love. The Searchers is a Quest or Golden Fleece.

    Sci-Fi Movie is a genre that also includes a wide range of story forms. Alien is Overcoming the Monster or Monster in the House.

    You don't have to use either of these schemas for story form. Just have a good sense of what other stories the story you want to understand is like. If you say it's unlike any other story -- you haven't understood the form.


    The last very easy thing to do when outlining is to make a list of major characters and look at how they stack up against each other. What's their function in the story and what would happen if they weren't there? What stance do they take on the theme? In Star Wars, Han Solo rejects the theme, then comes around in the end, enabling Luke to blow up the Death Star. He's the skeptic.

    And that kind of character is very powerful in fantasy novels. Because that character grants us permission to enter the reality. If it's all zealots and true believers in a fantasy world, it's harder for us to suspend disbelief. So Han Solo isn't just there to be cool, and he isn't just transportation for Luke, you lose a lot of meaning if you take his character out.

    And that's it. Well, I mean it's not everything. Outlining a story certainly can be more complicated than that, but it doesn't have to be. Just write down the beats and ask a few questions and a whole new world will open up to you. Even if you never write anything of your own, outlining a story will help you to enjoy and appreciate every other story more.

    And that's worth something.

    Get full access to How It's Written by Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 13 May 2021

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    How It's Written: Batman

    Explaining how Batman works written is a huge task. There is simply so much Batman. Since the character's creation in 1939 every conceivable tone has been struck with these stories. And if every twist or variation hasn't been tried, well, almost all of them had. You can read a Batman story in an alternate D.C. Universe where Bruce Wayne marries Selena Kyle and has a kid. That's not fanfic, that's a D.C. imprint from the 80's I think.

    This field has been PLOWED, in comics, film, television, action figures, t-shirts -- Batman. It would take a lifetime to do a comprehensive survey. And I think it would be a life -- well, wasted. Because the fact is most of everything isn't very good. Most Batman comics or movies, while they are fun and they are fine, they certainly aren't sublime.

    The reason I’m doing this is that I’m currently writing a "Batman" story, of a kind. And to do that well, I want to understand the character better. I’m writing a series called How to Succeed in Evil, available on Amazon, about an Evil Efficiency Consultant for Supervillains. It uses superhero tropes in the same way Douglas Adams uses Science Fiction and Terry Pratchett uses Fantasy. In the latest series of books, the long-term antagonist for my consultant is a superhero called The Lynx.

    This current run of the story started as I tried to answer the question, what would I do with Batman? What's the Batman story that hasn't been told. What happens if Batman was real like really, real? What's a consequence of this that nobody has ever considered.

    How to Succeed in Evil works like this. You put a superhero trope next to real people and it's funny or creates instant satire.

    Like Bruce Wayne. He's got billions. So if he really wants to help people, he should do it at scale, not by pounding muggers in an alley. He should devote his time to the Wayne Foundation. And if he really believes in what he's doing, he'll want to turn Wayne Enterprises into an engine that will generate so much money that he can use it to fund the foundation.

    So, in my idea, Batman is inherently irresponsible. He's a trust fund kid, who's defrauding his shareholders so he can play vigilante. He's a dilettante. And, from that you can know, he's probably not very good at business OR fighting crime. He wants to do the right thing, he just doesn't know how. And that's funny. And/or sad, depending on how you play it.

    So, for me, the questions to ask are three-fold.

    1. Why has Batman lasted? What makes this character have such staying power? Is it luck? Created at the right time? Certainly some of that is true, but there are things about this story and character that would be useful to understand if you want to make new stories that you hope will last. (and I do)

    2. How does this engine of story work? I mean there are so many Batman stories. So many great characters. What is it about this particular wellspring that makes it so productive. And, is there anything I can steal to become more productive myself.

    3. What is a Batman story at it's absolute best? How/and why does it work?

    So here's my plan of attack, I'm going to place Batman in the pulp tradition. I'm going to talk about the major kinds of Batman stories. And why, when they are great they are great. And then I'm going to analyze about the film the Dark Knight and the comics that lead up to it.

    Do you want Batmen? Because that's how you get Batmen!

    So where does Batman come from? One of the most important insights I have for anyone about story or even art in general is that everything was influenced by something. "There is no new thing under the sun," as the saying goes, which logically can't be correct. But new ideas are very, very, very, very rare. So if you see something that you think is without precedent, turns out there's a part you missed.

    And the part you might miss about Batman is that he is straight-up a pulp character. The pulp era in which he was created was this vast roiling machine that turned out story after story after story, almost all of them repackaged and produced with a speed that modern writers can't seem to match. Even though they had mechanical typewriters and we have computers. And these Pulp Characters are the guys who people like Bob Kane and Bill Finger used as inspiration.

    The number one inspiration for Batman is Zorro. Bob Kane said so himself. In the classic origin story, young Bruce Wayne and his parents are coming out a screening of The Mask of Zorro, when his parents are killed in a mugging.

    For me, Batman also has elements of The Shadow, Lamont Cranston, rich playboy by day, turns into the Shadow, who turns invisible and scares the crap out of criminals while solving mysteries and righting wrongs.

    There are of course others, it's all a melange. But from the word go, Batman comes right out of this world of ridiculous characters. Well, ridiculous now, if you go back to read them. But the other interesting thing to note is, Zorro's greatest influence is Robin Hood. I mean Zorro basically is Robin Hood. Which makes it interesting to think about Batman as an echo of Robin Hood.

    The interesting thing to note is that Batman is not ridiculous. Not at the start. Not funny, either. From the word go, Batman is a tragedy. And the Joker is a horrific monster.

    That panel of recently orphaned Bruce Wayne crying and dedicating his life to fighting crime in the earliest origin story is harrowing. Sure, I didn't get this the first time I read it, but when you go back and look at it, it's all there.

    And this is the primary difference. Batman has internal stakes. All of these other pulp adventurers, they're doing something because it's fun. Gentlemen Adventurers. Or because it's right abstract sense. Bruce Wayne dons cape and cowl not only for justice but to fix what is broken inside him. Batman is, first and foremost, a response to trauma.

    So how do Batman stories work?

    Batman never changes. Oh I know, Robin got killed and then he wasn't and Robin changed out and Nightwing, blah, blah, blah. But in terms of real interior character change, it seems to me that only two Batman stories involve the character changing in a significant way. The origin story and the death story.

    Everything else, is about the villains, in a deeply fascinating way.

    For me, in every good Batman story, the villain is a manifestation of Batman's internal struggle. And maybe every good action story is like this.

    Maybe a hero's struggle is always his or her consciousness against inner forces, those elements of psychology and neurology and instinct that we aren't consciously aware of, that we must overcome to become what we want, or need to be.

    Take, for example, an alcoholic. In one sense, there is nothing easier than not being an alcoholic. It's literally the cessation of an activity. It would seem to require no effort. But we are not in charge of ourselves. And the struggles to overcome addiction -- or anything else -- are titanic. But they are internal. And it is very difficult to understand anything in abstract terms -- especially the deep interior life of a human being. We make them concrete in character and action.

    So to understand and reason about these psychological struggles, the ancestors developed myths. I believe they used the oldest and most eternal categories known to them (Mother, Night, Father, Ocean, Light, Darkness, Dragon, Fire, Ice) not as things as themselves, but to try to understand what was going on inside them and how people should act in the world.

    In a real sense, the battle against any monster is smaller and secondary to the battle against the instinct for self-preservation within. But since we can't symbolize the inner battle very well, in stories, heroes slay dragons.

    Batman doesn't have Dragons, Batman has characters that are his externalized personality traits or other competing possible responses to trauma.

    So, many versions of the Joker is are a valid and understandable response to tragedy. We live in a cruel, nihilistic world. Nothing matters. There is no God, it's all a joke.

    Bruce Wayne/Batman is the opposite response. Bruce, through grief and the power of his will forges himself into an instrument in an attempt to restore justice and make the world a better place.

    And every Batman character is like this. Oh, they might have started out kind of silly, but as writers and artists plumbed the depths of these characters and tried to make better and better work, it all converges on the same idea.

    Batman strikes terror into the hearts of evil-doers and uses fear as a tool. Who else uses fear as a tool? The Scarecrow.

    Batman has become part monster. You know who's also part monster? Killer Croc. and ManBat. Because where's the line? What happens when the monster takes over? When do you go too far?

    Batman wants Justice. You know who else wants Justice? Ra's a Ghul. When does a vigilante go to far?

    Batman, you think you had it hard? You think you're strong and scary and know what loss and pain is? Think you can stay forever young and be the most super of superpredators? Meet Bane in the Dark Knight Rises.

    Now I'm not going to argue that all Batman characters do this perfectly or that every Batman story works this way. But the ones that work the best certainly do. A philosophical or psychological question is personified in a villain.

    Even the Penguin, as nutty as that character might seem, is a fundamental response to trauma. He's an orphan, his mother killed by a cruel disease. So he turns to crime. Because why not? The world is cruel and meaningless. A contrast to Batman turning to justice because the world is cruel and meaningless.

    And I think the original weirdness of comic book characters is that a fundamental source of ideas in comic book stories is what is cool to draw. And then the story is worked out.

    In fact, that's how I came up with the characters of Edwin Windsor and then Topper Haggleblat. It started with a marketing/merchandising idea to begin with. How do you make a comic stick out on the comic book racks? What if there was a comic book that was narrower and taller than other comics? Okay, why would that be a good idea? The hero is very tall, elegant, sophisticated. And I drew this terrible pencil sketch. And if you have a tall guy, you've got to have a short guy.

    And while pulling on that thread, the story of How to Succeed in Evil unraveled for me.

    A Batman story at its absolute best?

    For me, the apotheosis of Batman is found in two graphic novels, both by Frank Miller. Batman: Year One and Batman the Dark Knight Returns. If you don't know the first is an origin story. And the second is an ending story.

    It's no exaggeration to say that these books, along with Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and V is for Vendetta (all by Alan Moore) saved the dying medium of comics in the West. Time magazine picked Watchmen as one of the best novels of the 20th century. I don't think that's exactly right, but I agree with the point I think they were trying to make. All of these works are of stupendous quality. And not to read them is to be provincial in your own culture. All of these books are, in a sense that the word is not often used, canon. Even if they weren't great in themselves, they would necessary to interact with because of the effect they have had (for better or worse) upon the larger culture. If you want to write anything other than literary fiction, you should read them.

    All that being said, I have come to a strange conclusion, with one exception, Batman stories at their absolute best are stories about somebody else. Probably the Joker. Or maybe the way to say that is, the best stories with Batman in them are about the Joker.

    And you can even make a good case that Batman Year One, would be more accurately titled 'Lieutenant Gordon: Year One.' The weight of the story, the biggest change is Gordon.

    And this is a point that's kind of hard to see, because of the way they name movies and plaster Batman all over everything.

    For example, Christopher Nolan's wonderful film, The Dark Knight. Who's the prime actor in the movie? The Joker. And he's trying to prove that ultimately everybody is awful and nothing means anything.

    Did I ever tell you about how I got these scars? The answer is different every time because the truth doesn't matter. He's trying to destroy Batman. Bring him to the belief that there is no Justice. To get him to realize that you can't be a decent man in a decent time.

    That's why Harvey's Dent makes sense in the story. To provide a contrast. Here's someone like Bruce Wayne, better than Bruce Wayne, and he is powerless against the Joker's basic argument. The criminals are powerless against the Joker.

    And the crazy thing about that movie and its ending is that the Joker wins. Nothing means anything. The lies win. "Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

    Just take that out of context for a sec. But those words in a news director's mouth. Put those words into the mouth of a wife or husband who has cheated. Honey I'm going to reward your faith in me by lying.

    That's some evil s**t right there. And if the music and the cool art direction made those words sound good to you, made them sound unquestionably heroic, I get it -- I'm right there with you. But that's not flattering for either of us.

    And the only reason you didn't realize this and hate it immediately, is because of this scene --

    There are many, many great things about The Dark Knight as a movie. The pacing and the scenes are so tight, the dialogue is brilliant. Just think about how many great lines you know from that movie?

    "Some men just want to see the world burn?"

    "You want to see a magic trick?"

    "We're going to have tryouts?"

    "Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?"

    "Gotham needs a better class of criminal?"

    "Do I look like a guy with a plan?"

    Of course, Heath Ledger's performance is magnificent. This movie and Batman Begins are so good we even overlook the absurdity of the whole Batman word-gargling thing. It's sooooooo stupid. But it works.

    I think Dark Knight comes as close to being a great movie as a superhero film can without actually being a great movie. For some reason, it just doesn't hang together for me. It's three magnificent set pieces. The bank robbery at the beginning. The sequence where the truck flips and the choice on the two ferries. And the rest of it is woven together well but doesn't feel like a unified whole to me.

    But the level of craft. And how funny it is for being so intense in places. So many great, great moments. And really those moments, those singular experiences on the emotional rollercoaster of a good story are why we go to see big Hollywood movies. But they're not why a story lingers with us, stays in our hearts or changes us.

    And Dark Knight doesn't do that.

    But, the story that inspired it does.

    I'm talking about the 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. I'm not going to explain why this thing IS great in detail. It's a lot of things, but it's the story of an old hero who dies. Which is a part of the hero's journey that we've forgotten in modern times. But it a big part of it. See, if you're going to be a hero, you don't get to lay that burden down. In Beowulf, as an old man Beowulf, has to answer the call again and die fighting a Dragon.

    Hell, King Arthur dies killing Mordred, but he doesn't even get to stay dead. As the legend goes, he's sleeping, waiting for the time he is needed again.

    We see this story play when an old boxer comes out of retirement to fight a young one. He's too old, but he's the champ.

    You can hear it in these lines of Tennyson:

    Death closes all: but something ere the end,

    Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

    Not unbecoming men who strove with gods…

    …Though much is taken, much abides; and though

    We are not now that strength which in old days

    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,

    One equal temper of heroic hearts,

    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    The Dark Knight Returns hews to that form. And maybe The Dark Knight the film doesn't work because it's not really cast in one of those great forms of story? That's the kind of question that I don't know how to answer just yet. And if I had waited until I had figured this out, I never would have finished this video.

    I'll tell you my hunch though, if you want to innovate with story form, odds are it's probably not going to work out. It's like a song or symphony, you have to make a great one within the form.

    What I can tell you about the Dark Knight Returns graphic novel is that it has been looted by every creator since.

    The Dark Knight Returns contains the movies, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman vs. Superman, and the first page alone was the inspiration for that 20-minute race track scene in Iron Man 2.

    Frank Miller forever changed Batman. Every Batman after Miller is the dark, scary, gritty, possessed, gravelly-voiced Batman. And, as if that's not enough, he also did the same thing with Daredevil. Every Daredevil after Frank Miller is, in a sense, Miller's Daredevil.

    On top of all that, The Dark Knight Returns was the first comic I know of to genuinely gender swap a character -- Robin is a young girl. And she is hands down, no questions asked, my most favorite and I think also the most heroic Robin there is. And I have never really liked Robin. Robin has always struck me as kinda stupid. The boy hostage. But Carrie Kelley? She's a brilliant character.

    So for my money, if you want Batman at his best, it's Batman the Dark Knight Returns.

    In closing, I should also say, that revisiting Batman after all this time, gave me strange new insights. One is, and there's no way around this, is that Batman is himself a criminal -- he's a vigilante. A man who takes the law into his own hands. All superheroes are, in a sense. But explicitly Batman. And the crazy thing is how long the character ran on -- all of comics really -- with a nod and a wink. Yeah, yeah, it's okay 'cause he's a good vigilante. Or it's fine because he's rich and he's trying to do the right thing.

    It's really thin, but everybody was and, is okay with it.

    “What gives you the right? I'm not the one wearing hockey pads!”

    And the reason that we're okay with justifications like that we know it's going to give us a great story. Or perhaps that we understand, on some barely conscious level, that the logic of the story works as competing villains, competing perspectives on responses to trauma. And I'm sorry if this seems vague, I'm at the limit of my understanding here, but what I take away from it is two-fold.

    1) Realism, in any sense is a bad quality to judge story. I mean if you look at any story that people love, it's utterly implausible. Even, and perhaps especially, the non-fiction stories. The longer the odds, the more unlikely the outcome, the more we like it.

    2) We don't need much of an explanation, we don't even need a good explanation to suspend disbelief, but we need an explanation. Maybe all a reader or viewer needs is an acknowledgment that some stretch of genre or realism is being a handwaved away and we're good.


    So to wrap it all up.

    1. Why has Batman lasted?

    Some of it was certainly lucky timing. But the part that wasn't is because Batman has internal stakes built-in. Tragedy drives the character, even when he's ridiculous.

    2. How does a Batman story work.

    Every character is a response to trauma. An aspect of Batman's psyche that has been externalized. Now there's more to it than that, but I think that's what drives Batman's rogue's gallery and why the stories keep coming.

    3. What is a Batman story at its absolute best?

    Frank Miller's the Dark Knight Returns.

    Get full access to How It's Written by Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 06 Apr 2021

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    How It's Written: The Shadow Over Innsmouth

    Today I'm going to take you through Shadow Over Innsmouth. To reveal the techniques that make this story, and cosmic horror, work. It's one of Lovecraft's finest, and the unique way all the elements come together at the end is amazing. It's a thing that you feel when you read it, but I'm not going to settle for feelings. I'm going to show you how it works.

    Written in 1931, The Shadow over Innsmouth is tied with At the Mountains of Madness for my Favorite Lovecraft story. I think you read those two and you get the man at his best. This story is more conventionally structured than Call of Cthulhu, which I’ve done a previous video on and it, involves real jeopardy for the protagonist’s body and soul. It’s a tale in five unnamed chapters.

    The external story here is a young man traveling to a decaying seaport town in New England, finding that it is populated by people who have been mating with fish creatures in the deep, and barely escapes with his life. It’s thrilling. But the internal story is the truly terrifying thing. The first part, which I’m calling sucked in, sets up Innsmouth, and we see the unnamed main character drawn to the place.


    in the beginning, the character tells us this

    I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that ill-rumoured and evilly shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I was not simply the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination. It helps me, too, in making up my mind regarding a certain terrible step which lies ahead of me.

    And upon first reading, you think this certain terrible step is committing suicide. It’s Lovecraft, after all. But it’s not suicide. It’s worse than that. What can be worse than suicide? Well, if you haven’t read it — or you don’t remember, just hang in there with me.

    If you've watched my earlier, Call of Cthulhu video, you will recognize this weird, geeky, 40-year-old virgin setup. An antiquarian and sightseeing tour is not what I would call a rite of passage. But this, in itself, is foreshadowing, as we will see.

    The main character is trying to take the train to Arkham, but he's broke, so the station-keeper says:

    “You could take that old bus, I suppose,” he said with a certain hesitation, “but it ain’t thought much of hereabouts. It goes through Innsmouth—you may have heard about that—and so the people don’t like it. Run by an Innsmouth fellow—Joe Sargent—but never gets any custom from here, or Arkham either, I guess. Wonder it keeps running at all. I s’pose it’s cheap enough, but I never see more’n two or three people in it—nobody but those Innsmouth folks."

    Don't, don't take the old bus. Trust me on this one, ya never take the old bus.

    But the ticket agent gives him a bunch of scoop on the town. Including on the founder of the town, Captain Obed Marsh,

    The old Captain Obed Marsh ben dead these sixty years, and there ain’t ben a good-sized ship out of the place since the Civil War; but just the same the Marshes still keep on buying a few of those native trade things—mostly glass and rubber gewgaws, they tell me. Maybe the Innsmouth folks like ’em to look at themselves—Gawd knows they’ve gotten to be about as bad as South Sea cannibals and Guinea savages.

    “That plague of ’46 must have taken off the best blood in the place. Anyway, they’re a doubtful lot now, and the Marshes and the other rich folks are as bad as any. As I told you, there probably ain’t more’n 400 people in the whole town in spite of all the streets they say there are. I guess they’re what they call ‘white trash’ down South—lawless and sly, and full of secret doings. They get a lot of fish and lobsters and do exporting by truck. Queer how the fish swarm right there and nowhere else.

    None of this scares our hero off. In fact, it draws him in. Antiquarian that he is, he starts researching. At the end of Act II he learns about the Esoteric Order of Dagon - which has taken over the town's churches and sees this strange bit of jewelry that has come from Innsmouth. It is intense.

    It took no excessive sensitiveness to beauty to make me literally gasp at the strange, unearthly splendour of the alien, opulent phantasy that rested there on a purple velvet cushion. Even now I can hardly describe what I saw, though it was clearly enough a sort of tiara, as the description had said. It was tall in front, and with a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a head of almost freakishly elliptical outline.

    It clearly belonged to some settled technique of infinite maturity and perfection, yet that technique was utterly remote from any—Eastern or Western, ancient or modern—which I had ever heard of or seen exemplified. It was as if the workmanship were that of another planet.

    Among these reliefs were fabulous monsters of abhorrent grotesqueness and malignity—half ichthyic and half batrachian in suggestion

    At times I fancied that every contour of these blasphemous fish-frogs was overflowing with the ultimate quintessence of unknown and inhuman evil.

    And as we break into Act II he can’t even sleep, he’s so excited to go to this creepy weird town.

    The Road to Innsmouth

    I’m not going to lie. The first part feels slow and wordy by modern standards. It’s not an error, this is the style that was in use. But the amount of tremendous stuff that is set up skillfully in the start is amazing.

    And what I’ve noticed the most re-reading Lovecraft is how he manages the ambiguity of the way he conveys information. The first act is a lot of exposition. And we think we have been well-armed with the facts. But, by the end of the story, all of what we think we know about this character is going to shift underneath us and make us feel queasy and... horrified.

    I think this is a key to the effect that Lovecraft creates. If you know anything about this story, you know we’re walking into a town of people interbreeding with frog-like creatures from the sea. And, that’s disgusting and creepy, but, you know, it could edge over into absurd real quick. Like the Disney treatment of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but they somehow rope Lin Manuel Miranda into doing a hip-hop mash up of an old pop song, and we wind up with an Escape from Innsmouth chase sequence powered by "Who let the Frogs Out"

    This is not to mock the tale. I love the story, but just point out that, to pull off horror like this, you have to be masterful with your tone — and he is.

    So we meet the bus driver. And he’s nasty.

    He had a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears.

    The fingers were strikingly short in proportion to the rest of the structure and seemed to have a tendency to curl closely into the huge palm. As he walked toward the bus I observed his peculiarly shambling gait and saw that his feet were inordinately immense. The more I studied them the more I wondered how he could buy any shoes to fit them.

    A certain greasiness about the fellow increased my dislike. He was evidently given to working or lounging around the fish docks, and carried with him much of their characteristic smell. Just what foreign blood was in him I could not even guess. His oddities certainly did not look Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine or Negroid, yet I could see why the people found him alien. I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage.

    Note how specific this description is. We can see this guy. And this is where Lovecraft really shines. He gives us images so powerful and precise, they stay with you and you often remember them years later. Here’s another example.

    At last we lost sight of Plum Island and saw the vast expanse of the open Atlantic on our left. Our narrow course began to climb steeply, and I felt a singular sense of disquiet in looking at the lonely crest ahead where the rutted road-way met the sky. It was as if the bus were about to keep on in its ascent, leaving the sane earth altogether and merging with the unknown arcana of upper air and cryptical sky. The smell of the sea took on ominous implications, and the silent driver's bent, rigid back and narrow head became more and more hateful. As I looked at him I saw that the back of his head was almost as hairless as his face, having only a few straggling yellow strands upon a grey scabrous surface.

    Jesus Christ, get off the bus! As the drive continues, Lovecraft describes the crumbling, creepy town. But this is the bit that sticks with me

    Twice I saw listless-looking people working in barren gardens or digging clams on the fishy-smelling beach below, and groups of dirty, simian-visaged children playing around weed-grown doorsteps. Somehow these people seemed more disquieting than the dismal buildings, for almost every one had certain peculiarities of face and motions which I instinctively disliked without being able to define or comprehend them. For a second I thought this typical physique suggested some picture I had seen, perhaps in a book, under circumstances of particular horror or melancholy; but this pseudo-recollection passed very quickly.

    The bus isn’t leaving until the evening, so our unnamed protagonist decides to have a look around.

    Don't take the bus? Don't get off the bus? I mean how hard is this? But trust me, Lovecraft is not just having the protagonist wander into trouble to tell a story. There are reasons for this behavior.


    In his rambles. He gets word of the town drunk, Zadok, who will spill the beans if you give him likker. So he grabs a pint and goes looking for scoop. And the town drunk tells him this crazy tale and confirms what we should already know if we’ve been paying attention, the whole town is turning into fish. And that the townspeople have been sacrificing children to the creatures on the other side of the reef just offshore. And that the plague that wiped out the town was really creatures swimming in and attacking the town. At the end of the Rime of the Drunken Mariner, Zadok sees something out in the sea and runs away screaming.


    So he gets back to the bus stop and… wouldn’t you know it. The bus is broken and he’s going to have to spend the night. No need to build this up brick by brick. The townspeople try to kill him. He makes a daring escape from this hotel room, and the town is full of man/fish/frog creatures hunting for him. There are two things that a very interesting about this. As he’s eluding the pursuers in the town, he looks out to sea.

    For at a closer glance I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were far from empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town; and even at my vast distance and in my single moment of perception I could tell that the bobbing heads and flailing arms were alien and aberrant in a way scarcely to be expressed or consciously formulated.

    And this is what I mean when I say that Lovecraft succeeds at the level of the image. And it's worth asking but how does Lovecraft keep this sequence from degenerating into absurdity. Cause it's going to 11. There’s willing the suspension of disbelief, but that can be broken. And, while you are reading, the instant you think, “Well, this is a bit much” the spell evaporates

    He does it in two ways -- First he's very specific.

    Drawing inside the hall of my deserted shelter, I once more consulted the grocery boy's map with the aid of the flashlight. The immediate problem was how to reach the ancient railway; and I now saw that the safest course was ahead to Babson Street; then west to Lafayette--there edging around but not crossing an open space homologous to the one I had traversed--and subsequently back northward and westward in a zigzagging line through Lafayette, Bates, Adam, and Bank streets--the latter skirting the river gorge--to the abandoned and dilapidated station I had seen from my window.

    He’s described everything about the town, including the layout, with such precision, that it seems real. In fact, in part III he goes for this walk through the town to get to Zadok, and it seems to be a bit pointless. Like how much atmosphere are you going to hit a guy over the head within one story. But now it all pays off because the time he spent on description seems to ground the place so he can be more over the top and not lose you.

    The second way is that the protagonist is arguing against what he’s telling you the whole time. He doesn’t want to believe it.

    Later, as he eludes his pursuers, we get this:

    Something was coming along that road, and I must lie low till its passage and vanishment in the distance. Thank heaven these creatures employed no dogs for tracking--though perhaps that would have been impossible amidst the omnipresent regional odour. Crouched in the bushes of that sandy cleft I felt reasonably safe, even though I knew the searchers would have to cross the track in front of me not much more than a hundred yards away. I would be able to see them, but they could not, except by a malign miracle, see me.

    And then as they approach he doesn’t look at first. As he retells it, he tries to find any way it might be a dream — because he doesn’t want to remember this as true.

    Can it be possible that this planet has actually spawned such things; that human eyes have truly seen, as objective flesh, what man has hitherto known only in febrile phantasy and tenuous legend?

    And yet I saw them in a limitless stream—flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating—surging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal . . . and some were strangely robed . . . and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man’s felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head. . . .

    And then he faints dead away.

    So up until now, I think it’s been a good, but not great story. It’s very well-crafted. Sure, it’s written in a style that’s a bit wordy for today’s taste, but it’s very solid. But it's, you know, a story that you could read as a cautionary tale about getting on creepy buses.

    The Inner Twist

    But Part V is where it becomes unforgettable. That's where we hit the twist, the WRENCHING in the internal story. What, is the internal story here? It's easy to miss because up to this point it's only had one beat.

    And it was all the way back in Part One. Some 22,000 words ago. He’s coming of age. And he’s researching the family history. He wants to know who he is and become who he is supposed to be. And holy s**t does he find out. Because this is, for all the Eldrich and Cosmic horror, A COMING OF AGE STORY. He tells us in the first sentence and we totally miss it. But this coming of age is what makes this so terrifying.

    So he escapes Innsmouth, and, sometime later, having put the whole thing from his mind, goes to visit relatives who have some of his great-grandmother’s jewelry. And the first piece out of the box is one of those strange and creepy Innsmouth tiaras. Then he puts the pieces together.

    My great-grandmother had been a Marsh of unknown source whose husband lived in Arkham—and did not old Zadok say that the daughter of Obed Marsh by a monstrous mother was married to an Arkham man through a trick? What was it the ancient toper had muttered about the likeness of my eyes to Captain Obed’s? In Arkham, too, the curator had told me I had the true Marsh eyes. Was Obed Marsh my own great-great-grandfather? Who—or what—then, was my great-great-grandmother? But perhaps this was all madness.

    And that's when the dreams start.

    One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea. She lived in a phosphorescent palace of many terraces, with gardens of strange leprous corals and grotesque brachiate efflorescences, and welcomed me with a warmth that may have been sardonic. She had changed—as those who take to the water change—and told me she had never died. Instead, she had gone to a spot her dead son had learned about, and had leaped to a realm whose wonders—destined for him as well—he had spurned with a smoking pistol. This was to be my realm, too—I could not escape it. I would never die, but would live with those who had lived since before man ever walked the earth.

    He contemplates suicide, but decides against it and embraces his destiny, fully coming of age in the end.

    No, I shall not shoot myself—I cannot be made to shoot myself!

    I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.

    So let’s break this down.

    This is a story circle. Lots of people have talked about these. I think it started with Campbell and the Hero's journey. And this one is the Hero's journey through the lens of the Magnificent Dan Harmon. There’s a link to Dan's explanation of it in the description. Don’t worry about the particulars right now -- just watch how it fits. He needs to know who he is. He goes to Innsmouth and searches out the truth. And he finds it, even though he doesn't completely understand it when he does. Then he must struggle to escape. He returns to the real world. Gets a job in Insurance (as boring and real-world as it can be.) But he’s changed by the experience. An utterly horrifying way.

    So the external story is a thriller. The character goes through life and death struggle. But in the last bit something crazy happens. Oh, he becomes who he really is, but that means that who he thought he was has to die. This is always the case with coming of age stories, but it’s powerfully horrifying here because the human part of him is what dies. The story splits as the thing inside him takes over.

    I mean wow! This is amazing. It’s an inversion of the traditional coming of age plot. Because we as readers never notice that the character’s weaker, less capable, less mature self is dying. But when the character’s weaker self is his or her humanity!?!

    Woof. That’s intense. That’s blasphemous. That’s a great horror story.

    We have met the monster and it is us.

    Protip: Watch the video for outtakes of me reading some impossibly large Lovecraftian words

    Get full access to How It's Written by Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 04 Mar 2021

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    How It's Written: Call of Cthuhlu

    Today I'm going to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, an author who is one of the great well-springs of the horror genre. And if you want tl/dr on the horror -- there's Poe then Lovecraft and then everybody else.

    I'm going to dive deep into two stories, Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. Shadow over Innsmouth is one of my favorites, but Cthulhu is really worth thinking about because it sparked the entire Mythos.

    In a nutshell here is how a Lovecraft story works.

    An Investigator seeks out secret knowledge.

    He finds truth

    Which drives him mad.

    Someone is looking for trouble. Intellectual trouble, in fact. And they find truth, as much as they can understand, anyway. Which drives them mad in the end.

    Madness turns out to be the correct understanding of things. Because the Lovecraftian truth is a universe in which humanity is utterly insignificant. This is a very modern anxiety. We live in a time, the last 150-200 years or so when old belief systems have collapsed or are collapsing and nothing has replaced them. We don't have a good story of why we are here and what we are supposed to do. And every expansion of our knowledge in the physical sciences has pointed to our greater and greater irrelevance.

    The threat, the menace the thing that drives men mad -- the thing that dangles the thread that the investigators must follow deep into the maze of their own insanity -- is always one of the Great Old Ones. They are a pantheon of unpronouncables. Yog Sothoth, N'ylarlathotep, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Ithaqua, Tsathoggua, Hastur (the Unspeakable) who, paradoxically, is the most speakable of all.

    Now, screenwriters like to talk about how important story is -- and it is -- if the story is broken in film, it doesn't work. That's because screenplays are blueprints. And if a blueprint doesn't work the house falls down. But a story or a novel is NOT a blueprint. It's the actual thing. It's a habitable structure constructed, not from light and sound, but from words and the creative response of the reader.

    So just outlining the story doesn't explain why Lovecraft is great. And that's why you should stick around for the rest of this video. Lovecraft is actually something like a prophet. He's not writing a saga. He's no poet. He's writing revelation -- wild and disturbing visions of how things really are, or could be. And it's at the level of the image that he succeeds. And why he's worth reading.

    And the thing that I get with Lovecraft, that I don't get anywhere else, is this lingering sense that madness is the correct understanding. Lovecraft doesn't scare me when I read him, not really. But Lovecraft scares me years later, when I see or hear something I don't understand and it suggests to me the hidden depths of chaos in which we all unwittingly dwell. And whatever other criticism you might level at the man and his writing -- lots of them are justified -- I don't know of anything else like that in literature.

    Lovecraft echoes through everybody who comes after him. And, as we will see, much of what came before him echoed through him. As the saying goes, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal."

    And, for me, it's tremendously worthwhile to go back to read the things that have inspired generations of people. I gain power as writer by going to the source of the river.

    But before we dive into the story we have to deal with two things. The Mythos and the Racism. They are tightly linked, and maybe not in the way that you think.

    The Mythos

    So, Lovecraft created what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos. It includes a pantheon of unpronouncables. Yog Sothoth, N'ylarlathotep, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Ithaqua, Tsathoggua, Hastur (the Unspeakable) who, paradoxically, is the most speakable of these great old ones.

    The writers who wrote in this mythos after him started to take if very seriously, but Lovecraft didn't. He referred to it as "Yog Sothothery" (Jesus, Yog Sothothery! - it's like he made this whole thing up to troll dyslexics and people with speech impediments)

    The point is he didn't engage in obsessive "world-building". A term which I've always found to be a bit much, because if you scratch the surface of any fantasy "world" you will find an actual historical time/place/personage with dash of fresh paint and costume jewelry. At best you're mushing a few of those together.

    For example, Captain Kirk = Horatio Hornblower. And that's straight from the original pitch for Star Trek. And, in turn, Hornblower is based on Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald.

    Game of Thrones is the War of the Roses. Westeros is England.

    To become obsessed with the world or the mythos. Is to become distracted from the point of the stories. Nobody enjoys backstory, unless the backstory is also a great story. Don't believe me? I defy you to read The Silmarillion. In fact, I defy you to even skim the Wikipedia page without your eyes glossing over.

    But especially with Lovecraft, the Mythos isn't the point. It's how he conveys his point.

    The Racism

    And with Lovecraft, the racism isn't the point either. Oh, he was very racist. And I don't want to downplay it and disguise how very racist both he and the past were. I don't think it's good to downplay the colossal moral errors that things like slavery, racism, prejudice, tribalism, and bigotry really are.

    But, for Lovecraft, I don't see that racism is even a secondary concern in his stories. He uses the Other and the Unknown to display his primary concerns. And, whatever he felt personally, he's playing on the contemporary fears and stereotypes of his day to get the effect he wants. This isn't a justification, it's an explanation.

    And I can only observe, if you demand ideological purity and essential good hearteness from the artists you engage with, well, you are not going to get it. I mean, after you're done watching Mr. Rodgers and reading Neil Gaiman, who’s left? Saints are very rare. Good writers are also rare. And the intersection of the two is vanishingly small.

    For me, what Lovecraft seems to be worried about is two-fold:

    1) The universe is immensely vast and complicated and we don't matter in it at all.

    2) The only thing that even somewhat protects us from this chaos is culture -- which is decaying and becoming corrupted.

    These two fears are quintessentially modern. Insignificance and lack of a grand narrative -- a structure of meaning - a myth to inhabit -- is our condition. And we're one of only a very few generations of humans that have lived like this. And I have to think it has something to do with the fact that 1 in 5 Americans are on antidepressants. And the CDC reports that 42.4% of Americans are obese. One way, or another, it seems an awful lot of anxiety is getting swallowed.

    And while I don’t thing the way Lovecraft uses race and the Other to symbolize degeneration and disintegration is appropriate, I have take #2 seriously. As Jung said, "Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand."

    And Lovecraft keenly felt the decay and collapse of that something we cannot see. You can partially track this as a collapse of the Church in the west. Tolkien felt this too in response to WWI. The old ways were shattered. In fact, the shock of this cultural change has created and inspired some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century. And whole philosophical movements, most notably existentialism.

    It's a valid concern. And it powers Lovecraft’s horror. To play cheap racist gotcha games with this, might signal virtue, and it is certainly right in places, but don't let it get in your way of understanding. Because all story uses one thing to symbolize another. And the question is: Do you use your symbols well or do you use them poorly?

    But still it's tough. Because yeah, you can read racism all over the place in his work. But Lovecraft is hugely influential and you can't pretend he doesn't exist.

    Lovecraft Country

    I think author Mike Ruff did a great job of handling all of this, without slighting any of it, in his book Lovecraft Country ( I haven't seen the show). I really enjoyed the idea of the book and the book itself. It’s fine work. But I didn’t find it to be a Lovecraftian story. Nobody goes insane or dies and the character you become attached to survive and even triumph. Never happens in Lovecraft. It’s way more optimistic. But it is remarkable because it’s a horror tale told with the quintessentially American horror of slavery and racism.

    It’s also very interestingly structured, it's an interlinking series of short stories. Which is a form I really like and don’t know why we don’t see more of. Maybe Mike part of changing that.

    Anyway, you won’t go wrong if you check it out, but this video isn’t about Lovecraft Country, it’s about actual Lovecraft.

    Call of Cthulhu

    The story is like a Russian nesting doll. It’s told by Francis, but Francis does nothing but tells us the stories of Professor Angell, Inspector LeGrasse, and Mate Johansen. It’s a story within a story within a story. The best example of this kind of thing I find in Jorge Luis Borges the Argentinian Short story writer.— Who is truly amazing and 10x the writer Lovecraft was — he wrote these amazing stories within stories, and conveyed a depth of meaning even in the shortest of stories, that can be dizzying. And it turns out he was inspired, at least in part, by Lovecraft. And that’s the thing, Lovecraft inspired everybody as we shall see.

    This is the first line in the story.

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

    I could stop the video here because we’ve got all of it in the first sentence. An investigator of secret knowledge goes mad in the end because he’s learned too much about the truth of things.

    The start of the story is the death of Francis’ Great Uncle. Francis has to settle the estate. This would never fly today. And it’s strange that it worked in a pulp story. I mean really? It’s not very inciting. It really feels like the inciting incident in a tale called Adventures in Probate Court? But in that, there’s some horror too. Everyday, ordinary events lead people into madness.

    Now it seems like the old professor had a heart attack. But there is a weird hint here.

    …his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many. Locally, interest was intensified by the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end. At the time I saw no reason to dissent from this dictum, but latterly I am inclined to wonder—and more than wonder.

    Francis allows that the professor was old so the most reasonable explanation is that his heart just gave out. But, at this point we do have two competing theories of death. Heart attack. The “Nautical-looking Negro” theory. Our narrator Francis dismisses the idea — at first. And that’s another feature of Lovecraft, his narrators argue for the most reasonable explanation, and when they fail in their argument, they go mad.

    So, Francis' Great Uncle Angell has died under mysterious or perhaps obvious circumstances and our man Francis leaps into action. Does he pursue this suspicious, nautical-looking negro? No. Because racism isn’t the point. Lovecraft is setting up a symbol to use later. At this point, even Francis doesn’t believe that there was anything untoward with his Great Uncle’s death when it happened.

    So he jumps right in and reads his uncle’s papers. Which is weird, because EVERY other thriller and detective story would have him chasing the murderer. And as he pursued the nefarious evildoer the story would unfold. But murder isn’t the point in this story. And neither is ACTION. Because in the second installment.

    HE READS MORE! But fear not, part three is where it gets really exciting for Francis. And by exciting I mean he stumbles across a newspaper clipping - reads it (obviously) goes to NZ finds nothing, Goes to Norway tracking a man named Johannsen, only to find that he’s already dead.

    This time the murder involves two Lascar sailors. And as Lascarii are Indian, we now have more nautical-looking brown people. Or brown-looking nautical people. Because after everything he’s read, and the strange cults he’s learned about, it’s all starting to fall into place. So now, having grasped the sinister outlines of the shadowy conspiracy, Francis, man of action, CONTINUES READING — he sits right down and reads Johannsen’s diary. And, at the end of all this reading, he’s left with marginal sanity at best.

    Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

    So what we have is a guy who has uncovered knowledge. Written it all down. And now believes, because he knows too much, he will now be killed by a cult of sinister, degenerate nautical-looking foreigners, and DOESN’T WANT ANYBODY TO READ HIS STORY! What The Actual F’thgan? This is bizarre. On the surface, it seems, bad. Why is Lovecraft a thing?

    As we will see, in the second part of this series The Shadow Over Innsmouth is more conventionally structured story — and, I think, a better tale all around — but the structure isn’t what makes Lovecraft great.

    BECAUSE Lovecraft isn’t writing a thriller, he’s writing a revelation. Like a prophet.

    It’s apocalyptic literature. Not in the sense of the end of the world, but in the sense of the word we get apocalyptic from. The greek word Apocalupsis — which means an uncovering or a revelation. And Lovecraft stories, the truth is revealed to the characters — and the truth doesn’t set them free, it destroys them.

    He’s writing stories that work in part like religious texts, and this is especially true and easy to see with Call of Cthulhu since it’s not plotted like a conventional thriller. And the useful question to ask is, how does this oddly structured story pull the reader through it at all? What keeps someone interested?

    Because somehow it has to work. It was a serialized story, published in three consecutive issues of Weird Tales. So what makes us want to continue reading the story after the first part? Now, the answer could be “Because I heard Lovecraft was good” But that’s certainly wasn’t the answer this was first published.

    And what drives us here is not the interest in the murder of the Great Uncle, but in what the hell is going on below the surface of this story?

    Professor Angell must have employed a cutting bureau, for the number of extracts was tremendous and the sources scattered throughout the globe. Here was a nocturnal suicide in London, where a lone sleeper had leaped from a window after a shocking cry. Here likewise a rambling letter to the editor of a paper in South America, where a fanatic deduces a dire future from visions he has seen. A despatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some “glorious fulfilment” which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March. Voodoo orgies multiply in Hayti, and African outposts report ominous mutterings. American officers in the Philippines find certain tribes bothersome about this time, and New York policemen are mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22–23. The west of Ireland, too, is full of wild rumour and legendry, and a fantastic painter named Ardois-Bonnot hangs a blasphemous “Dream Landscape” in the Paris spring salon of 1926. And so numerous are the recorded troubles in insane asylums, that only a miracle can have stopped the medical fraternity from noting strange parallelisms and drawing mystified conclusions.

    How is this all connected? If this paragraph was a scene in a movie it would be straight conspiracy wall. Pictures, yarn, everything. And Francis’s story is merely the instrument of revelation. He’s John of Patmos. He’s receiving and relaying the message.

    And he’s skeptical.

    A weird bunch of cuttings, all told; and I can at this date scarcely envisage the callous rationalism with which I set them aside. But I was then convinced that young Wilcox had known of the older matters mentioned by the professor.

    He’s the character who, though he hints at awful things right from the word go, is skeptical enough to allow us access to this story. He allows the reasonable perspective and the simple answer the whole way through. Until he can’t anymore.

    So what does Francis read about that drives him nuts?

    Well, his uncle is obsessed with something called the Cthulhu Cult. And has been ever since a Police Inspector showed up an American Archeological Society meeting with a crazy statue. Described like this

    It represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind. This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.

    The aspect of the whole was abnormally life-like, and the more subtly fearful because its source was so totally unknown. Its vast, awesome, and incalculable age was unmistakable; yet not one link did it shew with any known type of art belonging to civilization’s youth—or indeed to any other time.

    Its very material was a mystery; for the soapy, greenish-black stone with its golden or iridescent flecks and striations resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy.

    The characters along the base were equally baffling; and no member present, despite a representation of half the world’s expert learning in this field, could form the least notion of even their remotest linguistic kinship. They, like the subject and material, belonged to something horribly remote and distinct from mankind as we know it; something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.

    So they ask the inspector, what is this thing. And where did it come from? So the Inspector tells a tale of raiding a strange cult in the swamps outside New Orleans. Including this --

    In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous with its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.

    So good old Inspector LeGrasse hauls them down to the station. And learns all about the Great Old ones and Cthulhu.

    Including the meaning of this unpronouncable chant.

    “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

    And the punchline to all of it?

    Only two of the prisoners were found sane enough to be hanged, and the rest were committed to various institutions.

    Which makes me (and the reader) want to know. What the hell is a cthuhlu anyway.

    And I don't mean within the context of the Cthuhlu Mythos. What I mean is what is this thing symbolically? Where did it come from? Why does it seem to resonate with everyone? The first answer I have is a poem called

    The Kraken, by Tennyson

    Below the thunders of the upper deep,Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleepThe Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights fleeAbout his shadowy sides; above him swellHuge sponges of millennial growth and height;And far away into the sickly light,From many a wondrous grot and secret cellUnnumbered and enormous polypiWinnow with giant arms the slumbering green.There hath he lain for ages, and will lieBattening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;Then once by man and angels to be seen,In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

    Lovecraft sacked this poem like the Vandals and the Visigoths sacked Rome. The Kraken sleeps below the waters. Cthulhu sleeps below the waters. Tennyson even gives us polyps -- and, just like swimming in a swamp and getting leeches, you can't read very far in Lovecraft without getting polyps all over you.

    But the Kraken is a form of a much older water Dragon/sea serpent concept. In the Bible, we find it as Leviathan. This from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah Chapter 27 verse 1

    In that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,With His fierce and great and mighty sword,Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.

    And this from Revelation Chapter 20 verse 2

    And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

    And the threat of Cthulhu is that sooner or later, he's going to be loosed for a little season.

    But even before Leviathan, we have all kinds of Dragons who live in the sea. Jormungandr from Norse Mythology and Tiamat from the Enuma Elish -- the Babylonian Creation Epic.

    It's worth thinking of Lovecraft in Mythical terms, because I think that's where his stories really succeed -- at the level of the image. Using religious archetypes in strange new ways.

    In part three, Madness from the Sea, we get the story of Mate Johannsen — after he’s dead. So there’s zero suspense. R’yleh rises from the bottom of the ocean and they stumble across it.

    I suppose that only a single mountain-top, the hideous monolith-crowned citadel whereon great Cthulhu was buried, actually emerged from the waters. When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith.

    Johanssen survives this encounter by driving a ship through Cthulhu’s face

    The brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where—God in heaven!—the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.

    And then he goes mad. Which, in turn, drives Francis mad because he now knows what’s really going on.

    That was the document I read, and now I have placed it in the tin box beside the bas-relief and the papers of Professor Angell. With it shall go this record of mine—this test of my own sanity, wherein is pieced together that which I hope may never be pieced together again. I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me. But I do not think my life will be long. As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so I shall go. I know too much, and the cult still lives.

    Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.

    And that's it. Hardly even a story by modern standards of plot. Nothing happens to the main character. So why does this work? I see a couple of ways. One, this is more like a history channel show than a thriller. Secrets of the Ancient Egyptians. We found this crazy thing out. And then we found another crazy thing out. Could be on the verge of unlocking the lost secret of Tututkhamen? And you're drawn into the next part. It's informational suspense, rather than dramatic suspense.

    While we don't see this device much in fiction anymore, we see it all the time in non-fiction. And I've read some fantastic non-fiction books and listened to some great non-fiction podcasts that use this to propel you through the story.

    The second reason is the revelation. The true nature of the universe is revealed to the reader through Francis. And this kind of revelation story is strange to us now, because, in a way, things aren’t obscured in the same way. If this story happened now, wouldn't have to stumble on clippings to put it together, I could go to the USGS website and scrape earthquake data around the world to pinpoint where R’lyeh was, and exactly when it rose. And we'd probably have shaky cellphone video of the ship driving through Cthulhu's tentacle'd face. And somebody would have gotten the whole thing on an undersea survey, or a satellite photo.

    But the story and the revelation still work, because the underlying horror is our meaninglessness in the Universe. This is only more true, the more we can observe. I heard an interview with Neil De Grasse Tyson said, “Every new leap in understanding has made us less unique and less important in the universe.” And the interviewer asked, if you came across a theory that suggested that man was more important or unique than we think now. And with hesitation he said, I suspect it would be wrong.

    But in one sense it doesn’t matter what we think of this story of Lovecraft now. Call of Cthulhu rang people, and particularly, other writers like a bell.

    And I think this eerie, quasi-religious revelatory quality is the source of Lovecraft’s lasting impact. He gave people their myths and archetypes in a way they immediately recognize but yet manages to be totally new and speak to modern anxieties in a way nothing had before. He kicked off the conceptual driver of modern horror.

    The effect that Lovecraft has had upon imaginative fiction is immense. This story was the spark that set it off. Which is why it’s worth reading and studying. In part two of this series, I’m gong to look at the story where I think Lovecraft is at his absolute best — The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

    Get full access to How It's Written by Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 17 Feb 2021

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    How It's Written: The Mandalorian

    This week, I'm trying something a little different. In addition to this essay and podcast, I made a video.

    It’s part of my ongoing series, “How It’s Written” I’m explaining, in detail, why I think the TV show the Mandalorian is so well-written. And to do that, I delve into the world of the internal story. I think this essay it's more fun as a video, but it totally works as a podcast or an essay. So consume in the form that you find most palatable. 


    Today on "How It's Written" we're going to dig into the immensely popular Mandalorian, I've seen lots of people commenting on this story, good and bad, but I don't think any of them have really nailed what makes the show so great.

    But that's not surprising, because that's what a well-crafted story does. It hides its workings so that you are drawn into and through the story, without fully realizing what's being done to you.

    But I'm going to lay it all out for you. Obviously, if you haven’t seen the whole show, here’s your spoiler alert. Go binge it and come back.  

    The most important thing to realize is that for all it's wonderful action sequences, The Mandalorian is driven by its internal story. And if you don't know what I mean by that, or that all great stories are driven by the internal conflict, stick around. 

    Internal v. External Story

    So, quick primer. One way to think about an internal story is that it is the story that matters most to the main character. I think this is what William Faulkner meant when he said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

    Take Rocky, for example. On the outside, Rocky is a movie about a hopeless loser who tries his best who gets a shot, tries his best, and loses. In fact, he gets beat up and loses in front of his girlfriend. But on the inside, it's a triumph. And we triumph with him. Which is why we love Rocky. 

    Could you tell the story of Rocky without the boxing scenes? On one hand, the idea is silly. The boxing is how you show the conflict on the screen. It’s how Rocky demonstrates his passion and sacrifice. When you write a book you can put the reader directly into the mind of your character, but with film or television, you can't. So you have to have some way to symbolize what’s going on in your character’s head. 

    But it can be anything that’s fun to film, boxing, wrestling, bobsledding, hunting a giant shark, a chess game, performing a difficult piano concerto, lightsaber duels, or a gunfight. 

    So here's how the show works

    Every episode has the same structure. Mando gets a job, Mando does a job. He wants someone from someone, in exchange, they give him a quest, and he completes it in exciting and unexpected action sequences. 

    That's it. That’s pretty much all there is to the external story. It's a formula and I love it. And, unless you're over-intellectualizing it, or trying to score clicks in pointlessly snarky YouTube commentary, you love it too. Because it’s amazingly well done. 

    Because as fans and viewers don't want our expectations subverted. We don't want genre conventions broken. We want all of those things honored and given back to us in a way that makes them fresh and new. We want our expectations fulfilled in a way that we don't see coming, or with such a high emotional charge we just don't care. 

    And I think that is one reason the Mandalorian is so refreshing. It doesn't have any pretensions to being important to the culture. They're just trying to tell an entertaining story. And that’s all that George Lucas was doing when he made the original films. And it’s not a thriller. The whole world isn’t a risk. The Galaxy is not in jeopardy. The kid is. And for me, that makes the stakes more real.

    Is anything in the universe going to change if Baby Yoda gets snuffed? Probably not. But, to the Mandalorian, it would be Armageddon. And that’s the internal story. Or part of it at least. 

    So we’ve got sixteen chapters across two seasons. And across the loom of these episodes the internal story of the Mandalorian is woven.

    It’s the story of a traumatized orphan raised to be a violent killing machine who rediscovers his humanity by caring for an orphaned child. And his real change, I think, is from cold indifference - that detachment of the professional not just to love, but something beyond love. I call it selfless love.

    I’m going to go through this in detail, but my first thought is that it is kind of a small story. It doesn’t feel like two seasons worth of television. So I think any flaws in this show are because they were shucking and jiving, filling episodes. Or what you might see as a flaw or a misstep is the writers intentionally sacrificing the external story to make the internal story stronger.

    The most glaring one in my mind is in Episode 14 — titled the Tragedy, but what I think of as the Return of Boba Fett. In the standoff, Boba Fett demands that the Mandalorian takes off the jet pack. This means that he doesn’t have it on when the Child is taken by the Dark Troopers. 

    Honestly, this is very, very dumb. Why wouldn’t he have put his jet pack back on? Seems very valuable, not the kind of thing you’d leave lying around? Because, if he had it, he’d just fly up to save the Child either, saving him or dying in the process. And it’s very important for the internal story to have the child taken from him. Because it is in recapturing the child — because the big fight that is to come, is how he will show that he loves the child.

    These “missteps” sets up a bigger, more satisfying story beats in the end. 

    Find me anything you love and I will find you a misstep. This show isn’t perfect. But nothing is. Work doesn't succeed because it's flawless. It succeeds because its strengths overcome its flaws. And that’s worth knowing if you want to be a maker instead of a critic. 

    This why hatchet job reviews and commentary bother me. Everything has flaws. And it takes no real skill or insight to them. What's harder to explain is why anything is good. In other words, how its strength’s overcome its flaws. 

    In the first episode, there are only two beats in the internal story. 1. Mythrol tries to bribe him to not take him in. And the Mandalorian doesn’t accept. Because, even though he’s not exactly a good guy, he’s a man with a code. Which the show will beat us over the head with for a couple of episodes. 

    This is the way.

    This is the way.

    This is the way.

    Yup, he’s got a way. Because this is a Western and Samurai movie. And Westerns and Samurai movies are the same thing. Because even if you swap out the pistols for swords a showdown is a showdown is a showdown. Yojimbo is a Fistful of Dollars. The Seven Samurai is The Magnificent Seven.

    And Kurosawa, the guy who made these Samurai epics, was in turn influenced by earlier Westerns. The cycles of influence never end. 

    Until in 1970, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima produce a Japanese comic called Kozure Okami. Which literally translates as "Wolf Taking Along his Child" but which you probably know as Lone Wolf and Cub.

    It’s a monster manga epic. This is the first volume and there are twelve of these books in the series. As you can see from the fabulous cover art by Frank Miller, we’ve got the cute kid in the baby carriage and everything. So it seems like it’s the same as the Mandalorian, but it’s not. Because of, you guessed it, the internal story. 

    Now I love Lone Wolf and Cub, so don’t take this as a real criticism, but compared to the Mandalorian, The Wolf — Ogami Itto — is kind of an a*****e. Or a real hardass. At the beginning of the story, he has been ordered to commit suicide — his wife is dead and his clan has been betrayed. He is setting off on a path of revenge, but he’s got this little boy. So he lays out a sword and a ball and lets the kid choose. If the kid chooses the ball, he’s going to “send him off to be with his mother.” In other words, kill him. But the kid goes for the sword. So he takes him with him in one of the most satisfying stories of reckless child endangerment I’ve ever read. 

    But that’s not the Mandalorian’s story. And we don’t quite know it yet. The only hint we get in this episode is when he tells the armorer, “I was a foundling.” So when he teams up with IG-11 and the droid wants to kill him, the Mandalorian shoots him in the head. 

    Why? Why would a ruthless professional, one who’s code includes the phrase, “I can bring you in warm or I can bring you in cold” not let the Droid kill the kid? Well, it could be that he wants the money for himself. We’ve both seen the show, so we know it’s not. It’s that he sees himself in the kid. He was rescued by a Mandalorian in a gunfight. And we’ll get all of that in the third episode

    The second episode is fun, including the line, “I’m a Mandalorian, weapons are my religion.” But from the internal story perspective, only one thing happens. The kid saves him from the Mudhorn. Now, it’s super geeky awesome that baby Yoda used the force, but for the internal story, it doesn’t really matter how the kid saves him. 

    In the third episode, he delivers the Child to the client and takes his Beskar to the armorer to make a new set of armor. While it’s being made, we get a flashback sequence that shows him as an orphan. A flashback sequence that for me, broke the flow of the episode a little. It was exposition I didn’t think we needed the first time I watched it. EXCEPT, I think we did need it. For the internal story. Because he’s about to blow up his entire life. 

    So he goes to his ship, and we have a great moment with the little metal ball. I think the technical term for this is Recognition by Token. The ball is a symbol for the kid. This is very skillful here because, in film, we can’t crack open his head and know what is going on. But if he stares at the metal ball the kid played with, what else could he possibly be thinking about?

     It’s a lovely internal moment and quietly one of the biggest moments in the series. Does he leave the kid or does he rescue him? There are two things to note about this.

    A crisis is always a choice.

    Great crises are never a choice between good and bad things.

    A crisis is always a choice between irreconcilable things. Think Sophie’s Choice. 

    In this moment the Mandalorian recognizes that he’s not who he thought he was. He’s not just a Mandalorian, inside, he’s still also that scared 5-year-old kid. Except this time he’s big and he’s strong and he knows how to fight. So what’s he going to do? Which one of these identities is he going to kill? Because a ruthless, cold-blooded bounty hunter doesn’t break the deal. But if he doesn’t break this deal, that little 5-year-old boy inside of him is going to die. 

    So he goes back, rescues the child, and goes on the run. And this is also gigantic on an external level. Because he blew up his entire external life. Now he can’t be a bounty hunter anymore. He’s on the run with the kid. And he is estranged from all the other Mandalorian. He has no idea what comes next. 

    Next episode, we have the wonderful defense in-depth scene against the bandits with the AT-ST. Which is a great introduction to a great character, Cara Dune. Who is a female badass, who looks like she’s a female badass. Bravo proper casting. I don’t want to get too deep into the details of the external story but I will point out that tactically, this may be the best battle scene in all of Star Wars. 

    This episode is also the Magnificent Seven in a nutshell. Call it the Magnificent Duo. And what’s important about this episode is he that won’t take off his helmet. He’s going to leave the child because it’s best for the child. But Bounty Hunters come and they have to stay on the run. But the very moment before that attack, Cara Dune lays this on him.  

     Cara Dune: (incredulous) That's it? So, you can slip off the helmet, settle down with that beautiful young widow and raise your kids sitting here sipping spotchka?

    And he refuses. No taking off the helmet. This is the way. He’s a man with a code. Shane rides off into the sunset. 

    Now the chapter is fun action in the desert, but a bit of a nothing burger for the story that’s driving this whole thing. The stakes aren’t raised on the key value. He does what he has done before, saves the kid from the bounty hunter. 

    In Chapter 6, the Prisoner, the Mandalorian has taken a job with old associates. And this is a bit of reversal from love to indifference. He’s risking the child’s life Ogami Itto style. You could see it as he doesn’t have a choice, but I dunno. Seems a little sloppy and risky for a professional. But he saves the kid in the end, the status quo is maintained, and we’re off to Chapter 7.

    To keep the kid safe, The Mandalorian pulls together all of his allies in a plot to kill the Client. Which is bittersweet for me. Because I love Werner Hertzog’s performance. “He is so marvelously nihilistic. As at home in the RealPolitik of the crumbling of empire as a crow feasting upon a battlefield.” Seriously, I love that guy. 

    Over the next two episodes, The Mandalorian kills the client and, we think, Moff Gideon but that’s kind of what he’s done before. But it can be read as just getting himself out of a mess. But tanking on the obligation to find the child’s people and see that he is taken care of, that’s a new step up. 

    At the end of episode seven, we have this great speech by Moff Gideon. 

    Moff Gideon: You have something I want. You may think you have some idea of what you are in possession of. But you do not. In a few moments it will be mine. It means more to me than you will ever know.

    At the open of episode eight, we have the Scout Tropper scene. Written by Taika Wattiti — because of course it’s written by Taika Wattiti — this scene is amazing. We get utter humanity from two Storm Troopers. Funny, sympathetic, it feels like the most real scene in the whole show for me. But, we can’t like these guys too much, because they are about to get absolutely murdered by IG-11. So what does Taika have them do. Punch Baby Yoda. Now, even though you totally sympathized with them, it’s totally okay they get killed. 

    That’s so well done. Instantly one of my favorite scenes of all time. 

    Also, I have to point out that IG-11 steals the entire first season for me. It’s his episode. It’s called Redemption, is because the droid redeems himself.

    The group hears the Child squeal over the comms. Cut to IG-11 on the speeder bike with the Child in a bag strapped to his chest. ]

    IG-11: Kuiil has been terminated.

    [ Cut to the common house. ]

    Din Djarin: What did you do?

    IG-11: (over comms) I am fulfilling my base function.

    Din Djarin: Which is?

    [ Cut to IG-11. ]

    IG-11: To nurse and protect.

    But, from an internal story standpoint, IG-11’s sacrifice prefigures the sacrifices that the Mandalorian will make for the Child. Because I think you have to see a person who never takes off his helmet as someone who’s trying to be a machine — and IG-11 as a machine that is trying to be human. 

    This is all b******t, from the text of the story. With IG-11 insisting repeatedly, that he’s never been alive. But I think my explanation is what most people get as a viewer, if only as a feeling. 


    Again, we get the Mandalorian refusing to take off his helmet. He’d rather die than show his face to another living thing. And, the scared little boy inside him just assumes that when he is powerless before the Droid, that IG-11 is just going to kill him. My guess is that there’s not a lot of room for weakness in the code of the Spartans.

    But IG-11 is not alive, so we have a loophole. 

    Now, if you're not a writer, you probably don't think about story much at all. You just enjoy it. Which means, when a story is well constructed, you don't notice any of the plot points. Your emotions are running high and you just want to know what happens next. Both on an intellectual and an emotional level, you are drawn into the story. 

    But if a story isn't together well, you notice all the errors and the gaps in the story. 

    This is why, I think, if you want to understand what makes great stories, great, you have to outline them. Because, on first inspection, they've cast their spell over you and it's very difficult to see them clearly.

    Since The Mandalorian won't take off his mask in the beginning, it means, he HAS to off his mask in the climax of the story. Now, if you say this out loud while watching season one for the first time with your friends, you're a jerk. But if you are Jon Favreau trying to write a television show that's what you call a clue. 

    Very often stories are worked back to front. What's your great ending? Now, how do you set up that great ending? Twists are easy-er. Great scenes are easy-er. But great endings are rare, so one very good school of thought is don't start writing until you have your ending. 

    Because just assuming a great ending will be waiting when you get there can really get you into trouble. As I think we've seen with other Star Wars stories. And, of course, Game of Thrones. *Shudder*

    Anyway — IG-11 makes the Mandalorian promise to take care of the child. And we get real emotion out of the Mandalorian from this.

    Din Djarin: (voice rough with emotion) No. We need you.

    IG-11: There is nothing to be sad about. I have never been alive.

    Din Djarin: I'm not sad.

    IG-11: Yes you are. I'm a nurse droid. I've analyzed your voice. (caressing the Child in farewell)

    Then we get a stupid ridiculous action sequence. This is something that you would do playing with Star Wars action figures. And part of me loves it and the other part just doesn’t care. Because, as we’ve seen from following the internal story — it doesn’t matter. It’s a boxing match. A symbol of the internal struggle and triumph.

    Annnnd, season two.

    For what I read as the internal story of the Mandalorian, nothing happens for like seven Chapters. Oh, plenty happens, in the way of action. And I like all of these episodes. I even like Chapter Ten with the crazy ice spiders and it’s Deus ex Machina ending. Because I’m bought into the internal story by this point. And, for that story, the jeopardy is: is Baby Yoda going to get caught eating the Frog lady’s children? 

    I think Blake Synder of “Save the Cat” would call these episodes “Fun and Games” it’s the promise of the premise. The Mandalorian is doing cool Mando things. He’s taking care of the kid, but it’s not like the stakes of his sacrifice are rising. 

    Then Moff Gideon captures the kid. And he kills a main character.

    Blows up the man’s ride. But it’s more than blowing up the man’s ride. That ship is a character in the show in the same way the Millennium Falcon is. Once it’s gone, things can’t really be the same. Maybe this is an intentional signal, maybe not. But the story formula is broken. Losing the ship is a powerful sign that we’re not going back to the way things were. 

    The Mandalorian calls in all his allies and they put together a plan to get the kid. 

    But along the way, we have another climax to the internal story. He needs the location of Moff Gideon, but to get it he has to break his code and take off his helmet. Which he does. Is this it? This the big scene where the Mandalorian removes his helmet — well, not exactly. But I think it actually heightens the big scene. Because what we see is that he doesn’t exactly know how to be a person without the helmet. He’s damaged, and to protect his weak point, he has donned armor. 

    And what he’s armored himself against is trauma. All that terrible s**t that happened to him, not only his parents being killed but also the terrible things that happened making him a Mandalorian. To the Mandalorian, foundling might just be another term for child solider. And the time-honored way — to make superhuman warriors — from Spartans to SEALS — is to put them through trials that only a very few can survive. This guy is broken and we see it in his eyes in Chapter 15

    We also get the great scene where Bill Burr just blows the whole operation because he has to shoot his ex-commander. “Yeah, was it good for them though?” For me, this is the most political moment in the entire show. But it doesn’t feel forced and is totally consistent with the character; and what is the arc of most of the secondary characters in the show. 

    Every single one of them redeems themselves, just as the Mandalorian redeems himself in the end. Look at the transformations. Greef Carga goes from running bounty hunters to becoming a governor. The Mandalorian brings the Sandpeople and the people of Mos Pelgo together. Cara Dune goes from wanted fugitive to Marshall. Bill Burr redeems himself when he kills his commander and blows up the base. 

    For all the violence, this is a show about redemption. 

    At the end of episode fifteen, he puts Moff Gideon on notice with a lovely bit of parallelism, repeating Moff Gideon’s speech back to him word for word.

    Now, this is not strategically sound, but it’s so cool, who cares? I’m not here for a lesson in tactics, I’m here to be entertained. 

    So, Fight, fight, fight. Rescue the kid, trapped on the bridge. Robots hammering at the door. All is lost — but then a lone X-wing flies in. 


    Now, I don’t want to underestimate the feels that come with Luke Skywalker making an appearance. It got me. And it really got me because the prequels and the sequels were so bad. My goal with these essays is not to be critical — and there are things to be learned from those stories. But they were bad. And, especially with the sequels, maybe the expectations, the corporate meddling, all of that made it impossible to make it good. Honestly, I thought the first one did an amazing job of threading an impossible set of needles — but after that, ugh. 

    And those prequels, “messa say *hurling noise*.”

    Now, you may feel differently and that’s fine. I don’t blame or judge you. But what you have to understand about me is that my Dad took me to see Star Wars in 1977. I was five. And we saw it, in the theatre, at least three times. 

    I loved that movie so much that whenever a movie would come on television with the 20th Century Fox intro, with the drum roll and the fanfare. 

    I would stop whatever I was doing on the off-chance, on the hope that it might just be Star Wars. 

    It almost never was. 

    Empire Strikes Back blew my mind. Return of the Jedi wasn’t at good as that, but it was close. Luke saving and forgiving his father is still very powerful. Maybe more powerful now that I am a father and I come to understand a little bit about what having a son means. And it is saying a hell of a lot that a piece of pop culture still works on any level 38 years later. Or 44 years later if you count from the first film. 

    Here’s the thing, that five-year-old boy is still inside me. Honestly, I didn’t have a very happy childhood. I haven’t always had that great of a relationship with my Dad. We both can be very difficult people. It was his first time being a Dad and my first time being a kid, so neither of us knew what the hell we were doing, but I remember the moments surrounding those films as being very happy. 

    And since Return of the Jedi, that five-year-old kid has waited for that Star Wars to show up again. To this day, my ears still prick up when I hear the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Because maybe, just maybe it’s going to be that Star Wars movie I’ve always wanted but never got to see. But it never has.

    The lesson a writer could learn from this is the expectations you set with a book, or a film or a genre are crucially important. And if you don’t handle them correctly, you’re going to be in for rough sledding. 

    But the five-year-old me doesn’t care about any of that. He’s been waiting for Luke Skywalker to show up on-screen since 1983.

    Not this guy:

    This guy:

    So yeah, that was an emotional moment for me. And I don’t care about the quality of CGI. It didn’t matter anyway, because tears welled up in my eyes.

    I tell you all that so you can put what I will say next into proper context. That moment was genius. But it’s not storytelling genius. It’s a manipulative, sentimental genius. And if an emotional moment like that is wrong, I don’t want to be right. For reasons beyond my conscious control, I am all in.

    But, it’s still Deus ex Machina. The God from the Machine. The term was coined by Aristotle, who used it to point out that it’s generally bad writing. This kind of thing has been recognized as a mistake since 300 B.C. But in this case, it’s a mistake you want to make. 

    Deus Ex Machina (not a New Wave Band)

    So here’s how it worked in Ancient Greece. At the end of the play they would literally use a crane to drop a totally new actor, playing a god onto the stage and he would magically resolve everything. But now, 23 centuries later, instead of a crane we get an X-wing dropping the god into the story. 

    But it doesn’t matter. Because all this only resolves the external story. And the internal story is what matters. 

    Let’s break it down. 

    As the Dark Troopers are banging on the door, Moff Gideon gets a hold of a blaster. And when he shoots at the child, the Mandalorian throws his body in front of the shot to save Baby Yoda. For me, this is a superfluous beat. Meh, it’s just his life. Mando has risked his life a whole bunch for the kid.

    But at the very end, after Luke has cleaned house, The Mandalorian risks, far, far more. 

    In the end, he risks his identity. 

    He grows and changes to save the child. And he loves the kid so much that his ego — that wounded thing inside him that fights to hold onto his code, that won’t let him take off his helmet, that holds onto all the pain and the trauma because the Ego needs it; believes without it, he won’t exist. 

    That same thing in all of us that clings tightly to who we believe we are — that it gets in the way of us becoming someone better — that won’t let go even when things about us, threaten to destroy us and everyone else around us. The Mandalorian loves the kid so much, so unselfishly, that he lets him go. 

    He doesn’t do it to be the hero. He doesn’t do it to save the kid’s life, or his own. He does it because the child needs it from him. And he loves the child so much, he has to give it to him. Loves him enough to let him go, even though it had to hurt like hell, even though, he’s probably not going to know who the hell he is for a while. Because his ego has been dissolved in an act of selfless love. 

     THAT is a story. That is a character arc. That is an ENDING.

    And while I could quibble over beats or choices or minor things, when you see the whole arc of what’s really going on, I don’t know why you would waste your time. It’s like complaining about a rainbow because you think it should be six inches to the left. It’s f*****g rainbow jackass! If you’re not going to enjoy it, you’re not going to enjoy anything. 

    If you’ve liked this episode, you should totally subscribe. And if you like the way I think about story, you should probably check out my latest series, How to Succeed in Evil. Here’s a link that get you a free copy of the first book. 

    Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

    Get full access to How It's Written by Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 26 Jan 2021


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