The Goliath Principle

When I broke down Age of Ultron two weeks ago my biggest problem with the film was how lackluster the villain was and my biggest problem with the villain was that he didn’t. Accomplish. Anything.

Way back when I was a little bitty boy (living in a box in the corner under the stairs in the basement of the house half a block down the street from Jerry’s Bait Shop) I took a course on screenwriting. One of the first things we discussed was setting up the conflict in your story and, given the love Hollywood has for David and Goliath stories, our professor chose the story of David and Goliath to illustrate the principle. In outlining a script the story one of the first beats we had was Goliath triumphing over his enemies – a concept we called Goliath moment or the Goliath principle.

Now one thing you don’t hear a whole lot about in writing these days is how to build good antagonists in general and good villains in particular (the two are not the same thing). So let’s do a little of that, shall we?

The purpose of Goliath moments are pretty simple: They build audience investment. While conflict is what drives a story and pacing is how fast you’re moving investment is a measure of how much your audience cares. Part of getting your audience invested depends on your protagonist – how sympathetic, relatable and believable they are. But part of audience investment is solidly in the antagonist’s camp. Once you have your audience connected to your protagonist you still need to make sure they feel your main character could legitimately have something bad happen to them. The more present and pressing the danger the more likely the audience is to become invested in it.

The easiest way to do that is to actually have the villain do something bad.

Now typically the bad thing is done to the protagonist but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s look at a few stories from pop culture, shall we? Star Wars: A New Hope sees the villains capturing one hero, Princess Leia, in the first five minutes of the film. Before we’re a half an hour into the film stormtroopers have murdered the protagonist’s entire known family. We know immediately that these are bad people.

Aladdin begins with Jafar discovering the Cave of Wonders and sending a hapless minion to his death inside. From Iago’s reaction it’s no surprise that the cave killed the man and Jafar doesn’t pause for a even a moment to contemplate the minion’s death. He just moves on to the next scheme. That’s cold.

Titan A.E. begins with the Drej blowing up Earth. And that’s terrible.

These are all examples of the villain in a position of power freely using it to commit acts of evil. In the case of the Empire and the Drej it’s the power to cause harm while in Jafar’s case it’s the power that comes from his knowledge and expertise with the occult combined with his willingness to use these dangerous forces.

Seeing the dangerous and frequently deadly results of a villain’s actions increases audience investment because audiences will begin to worry for the wellbeing of the protagonists you are encouraging them to sympathize and relate with. Note that you don’t necessarily have to have a protagonist established before throwing a villain out there, menacing innocents and burning countrysides. Star Wars let us see a Star Destroyer demolishing another ship before we met any of the movie’s protagonists. But the whole time Luke and company were running around on Tatooine we knew that there was a giant death triangle in space waiting to nab them if they ever got spaceborn – and then it turned out there were two of them!

You don’t have to put your Goliath out there from moment one, of course. The Lion King doesn’t show it’s villain’s teeth until the movie’s been running a while. Neither does your villain necessarily have to leave a path of destruction in Its wake to appear threatening. The agents chasing Trinity at the opening of the Matrix don’t kill or even catch her. Instead their ability to shrug off apparent death and hijack the bodies of innocent bystanders serves to impress the audience with how dangerous they are.

The main point of all of this is to make the audience fear what the villain(s) can do to the characters they sympathize with and care about. While it doesn’t have to happen in every film showing Goliath ascending at or near the beginning of your story is a great way to make sure your villain is a solid threat and make your story that much better. In fact, if you have a favorite villain the odds are the storytellers did just that.

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Green and Yellow Morality

Those of you familiar with the TV Tropes morality pages probably know what Black and White, Gray on Grey and Blue and Orange Morality tropes are. There’s a lot to be said about them but that’s not what I want to do today. Rather, in the same vein, I want to talk about another fairly frequent morality trope I’ve noticed in fiction and we’re going to call it Green and Yellow Morality, or GYM for short. Some context.

The colors green and yellow identify two opposing groups of interplanetary soldiers in the DC Universe. One of these groups are the Green Lanterns. The name Green Lantern is an old one in comics, going back to the 40s, although the most commonly known Lantern, Hal Jordan, was introduced in the late 50s. Although it wasn’t a part of the original Lantern’s schtick; when Hal first received his ring and given the power of the Lantern Corps he was told that a central requirement was that he be fearless. Another was that he be honest but that’s not what’s important here – fearless. Focus on the fearless.

Many years later, after almost half a century of expanding lore and character development, the Green Lantern story would come to depict the Green Lantern’s fearlessness as an extension of their willpower. Will held fear, and many other emotions, in check and allowed the Lanterns to draw out the power of their rings and use it wisely.

Yellow, as most westerners already know, is a color usually associated with fear or, more specifically, cowardice. It’s also the color the writers chose for the Sinestro Corps, also known as the (surprise!) Yellow Lanterns, a group of spacefaring warriors led by a former Green Lantern who had embraced fear, at least as a weapon, and made rings that gathered it from others as a power source.

Where Green Lanterns tried to encourage strong wills making good decisions in all people Yellow Lanterns would terrorize others into letting them make all the decisions.

While it’s never expressly described as a moral system Green Lantern stories constantly imply that fear is a bad thing and willpower is the opposing good. For example, Hal is often at odds with Batman. Part of that is personalities but part of it is methodology – Batman frequently tries to terrify criminals out of their current lifestyles and that is anathema to Hal and the Green Lanterns. The Guardians of the Universe are often depicted as using their will to hold all emotion in check so as to make the clearest and best decisions but avoiding fear in particular. And the primary method to contain Parallax, an evil being that is fear incarnate, was to imprison it at the heart of the universe-spanning power source for the Green Lantern’s will channeling power rings.

Without ever using the terms “good” or “evil” the comics manage to create the idea that willpower and fear are opposing forces with moral implications. That brings us back to our focus today: Whenever a work of fiction takes attitudes or outlooks or emotions and assigns them moral qualities you have Green and Yellow Morality.

While I’ve chosen DC’s Green Lantern mythos to provide the name for this the trope happens more frequently than you might think and the most famous example isn’t in comic books. It’s Star Wars.

The dark side of the Force is created (or channeled?) by anger, fear and aggression while the light side advocates an almost ascetic state of calm and… well, the light side is actually never articulated as clearly as the dark side. It’s a “flow” I guess and it involves life somehow. Mostly it seems to be whatever isn’t anger, fear or aggression.

Now like all tropes, Green and Yellow Morality is a writer’s tool. There’s a lot of interesting stories to be told based on the conflict between differing mindsets, attitudes and personalities and Green and Yellow Morality can be used to spark those conflicts or just make sure they keep burning hot. They open up opportunities to show the humanity in characters as well.

Moral codes always come with the challenge of applying them to real world situations and the Green and Yellow is no exception. Green Lantern stories in particular have occasionally subverted the general tone of the series to show how Hal’s strong will can result in his making decisions without questioning them and get himself in trouble or put distance between him and people with less confidence. What he sees as his greatest virtues can also be vices. The struggle to properly apply virtue is a universal one.

In fact Sinestro was a Green Lantern who used his own fearlessness to create and stay on top of the Yellow Lanterns; in many ways completely inverting what it meant to be a Green Lantern entirely.

But attitudes or emotions as a moral code have critical failings as well. One critique Jedi philosophy gets a lot is that fear and anger are not negative in and of themselves – they are emotions that occur when something negative could happen or has happened around us. We are scared of getting hurt. We are angry after being hurt. The emotions serve as warnings of danger or prompt us to react to difficulty. Likewise, aggression is simply actively seeking to make something you want a reality.

If left unchecked emotions like fear or anger or attitudes like aggression can result in bad things. But the reality of human experience is that the clamping down on any of these things will create just as many problems as leaving them unchecked would. Frequently finding moral outcomes in situations fraught with strong emotions is less an exercise in drawing a spectrum from emotional response to totally controlled response and more an exercise in creating a Venn diagram of where emotion and self-control overlap and create good results. When both ends of your “moral spectrum” result in evil then it’s not really a spectrum, just a way of talking about what drives us.

What that means for writers seeking to use Green and Yellow Morality is pretty straightforward. Avoid the temptation to follow in Star Wars‘ footsteps and blatantly assign morality or immorality to specific emotions or attitudes. Instead, try and be more like the Green Lantern – let your leading characters strongly identify with the ends of the spectrum you want to build and then play up the strengths and shortcomings of each. Yes, some emotions and attitudes will lead to good outcomes more than others and there’s nothing wrong with showing that. But ultimately human emotions aren’t moral decisions, even if they are closely linked at times, and trying to write a story where they explicitly are moral will probably do more to undermine your story than help It.

Used with care Green and Yellow Morality is a great asset in focusing your story and setting the stage for conflict. Used carelessly and it just makes your story look slipshod.

Writer’s Analysis: Age of Ultron

So I’ve done something like this when I did midseason recaps – see Scorpion for an example – and I thought I’d try my hand at a detailed analysis of what I thought of a recent film as a piece of writing. Since the only recent film I’ve seen is The Avengers: Age of Ultron and since I’ve already spent six whole posts talking about the first Avengers movie (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) I figured Age of Ultron was a good place to start.

Three things before we start. First off, to discuss how something is written you need to look at the story as a whole or at least from the perspective of everything that’s available. Naturally this involves spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Second, this is not a review. My opinion of the movie is that it was good fun but had weaker writing than the previous movie. There. That’s my review. The rest of this is more an examination of what was going on in the film, writing wise.

Third, like midseason recaps the focus is on writing, not acting, effects or other matters. But I did have a few thoughts on that other stuff so let’s get that out of the way real quick, shall we?

Acting And Effects 

The acting in this film is fine. Really, in terms of quality, it’s right up there with The Avengers except Clark Gregg isn’t in it so it suffers slightly. (Yes, I’m that much of a fanboy.) There are a few newcomers to the cast, most notably Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, and they’re just as competent and fun to watch as the others.

The effects are pretty sweet too. In particular there are some amazing shots of the Iron Man suit in action, “Veronica”, or the Hulkbuster as it’s called in the comics, is a lot of fun to see in particular. My one problem is probably Ultron himself.

The decision to make Ultron a completely CG character feels like a mistake. Yes, the effect is impressive but he feels slightly inorganic in the rest of the world. Even the Iron Man suit is a practical effect half the time – usually the half when it’s in close proximity to other real parts of the set so it doesn’t look wonky. Only the Hulk has been CG the whole time he’s on screen and even then he’s not the Hulk the whole time. Ultron’s CG the whole time he’s on screen and the scenes where he needs to be a serious character suffer for it.

In short, Ultron seems slightly out of place every time we see him and that doesn’t help the film’s biggest weakness…

The Villain 

Ultron’s a wuss. Seriously, he never pulls even one win over the Avengers. At least Loki managed to blow up a SHIELD facility, steal critical supplies and raid the Helicarrier and escape virtually unchallenged, to say nothing of his subverting a couple of major SHIELD assets. Ultron doesn’t succeed at anything.

From the moment his shambling first attempt at a body crashes the Avengers’ party they pound him like a red-headed stepchild and send him packing. The one time the Avengers are put off balance it’s by Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, not Ultron himself and even in this moment of triumph we see Ultron’s avatar on the scene blown up by Iron Man. Yes, it’s true that Ultron is supposed to be a kind of hive mind, never truly in one place at one time, but he’s only shown behaving that way once or twice and he winds up locked in a single place at the end of the film with relative ease so even that aspect of Ultron lacks impact.

Ultron’s motivation is also very muddy. I know that he’s supposed to be like Hal 9000, a computer designed to look after people that winds up trying to wipe them out instead, but the problem is that’s a very overdone concept these days and the basic premise hasn’t aged well. When the original Age of Ultron story was written computers were an oddity, no one worked with them very often. But now, when a large portion of the population carries a fantastically powerful computer like a smart phone around in their back pocket people understand computers a lot better. One of the most basic things we know about them is that computers don’t work in the abstract, they are very literal.

Yes, I know there are people who believe strong AIs are just around the corner and continue to insist we’ll have computers thinking in the abstract in no time at all but for the moment that’s pure fantasy. A computer doesn’t think about its creators or what impacts it has on its environment or even how it might carry out their job in a more effective way. They do what they’re told and that’s pretty much it.

Ultron acts like a person with very un-programing like neurosis and obsessions and that’s what makes him so weak an AI character compared to, say, Baymax from Big Hero 6, an AI that acts much like Siri would if Siri were a medical tool that could walk about on its own. In other words, Baymax acts like the AI we are familiar with, Ultron decidedly does not. A person could make the logical jump Ultron did and it might be interesting to know why he or she did. A computer could not make the logical jump Ultron did and attempts to explain why a computer did are never given.

In short, Ultron needed much more build up in this movie, both in terms of his abilities and his motivations. Without it he just feels like a punching bag for the heroes to beat up.

The Plot 

The plot here is pretty run of the mill. The planet faces an extinction level event – a step up from simple invasion and subjugation – and the only people who can stop it are The Avengers. On the surface of it this story is simple, just like the story of the last film. But where the original used it’s simplicity to make room for more character arcs Age of Ultron crams the story full of weird plot elements and set-ups for future continuity. The result is the movie jumping about frantically from one plot point to another. We’ll go from suddenly being at Hawkeye’s house to at an Internet hub in Europe and then over to Seoul, South Korea. The film has definitely crossed a line from “moving briskly” into “choppy”. The plot is simple but it’s hard to follow and that’s definitely a strike against it.

Characters: Arcs and Moments 

The best part of Marvel’s The Avengers was undoubtedly the deft use of character arcs, the story somehow finding time to cram in one for each superhero and at least partial arcs for the “normal” shield agents. Ultron has two arcs, perhaps two and a half, one tracing an unfolding romantic relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff and one tracing the evolution of Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) from a well-intentioned extremist to a legitimate hero and the “perhaps a half” tracing Wanda’s twin brother Pietro (Quicksilver) as he makes the same journey. Quicksilver’s counts as differentish because he winds up dead, where Scarlet doesn’t.

Of these two and a half arcs, Banner and Nat’s comes off as the stronger and I’m not just saying that because I thought they’d make a good pair. Some people said the pairing seemed weird to them but, given that Banner saw through all of Romanoff’s verbal obfuscations when they first met and he deals with problems in ways she’s not used to I can see how she’d be attracted to him very easily. Romanoff brings the good doctor a sense of levity he’s been sorely missing for a while yet her inability to be honest with herself makes her vulnerable in ways Banner can’t really ignore so a mutual attraction isn’t surprising.

The fact that the relationship goes awry doesn’t make the story arc a bad one. I’m pretty sure the Hulk chose to walk (or rather fly) away from Romanoff because of the way she used the attraction between the two of them to get close to Banner and switch him for the Hulk. For once Banner didn’t see through Romanoff’s ruse because the feelings she has for him are real, not one of the masks she uses to get through life, but that actually makes the betrayal kind of worse. By using a real promise of a relationship to manipulate him Romanoff actually hurt Banner more than she ever could have with a lie. There’s still hope for these two, I think, but they needed some space after all that happened (and in a short amount of time!) so I think this ending is fair to them even if it’s not necessarily satisfying to viewers.

The flip side of the equation is that this entire story arc is crammed into maybe fifteen minutes of screen time. If you read any of my reviews of romance stories during February you know I like my romances to take their time unpacking the protagonists, showing the qualities they like about each other in action and showing how they are gradually starting to think of each other as long term parts of one another’s lives rather than just people they know. Age of Ultron flat out doesn’t do this. At all. The entire film is moving at a breakneck pace and that badly hurts what could have been a romance with a good premise and an interesting twist ending.

The twins have much the same problem. They just didn’t get enough screen time for me to really feel their journey. I’m not sure what they were originally expecting from Ultron, although it obviously wasn’t an attempt to wipe out humanity so I guess their changing sides makes a certain degree of sense. Their story just wasn’t very compelling. It did give Hawkeye a chance for some really great moments, though.

And that brings us to one of the best things Age of Ultron had that it’s predecessor didn’t: Character moments.

A character arc is a series of events with a beginning, middle and end that shows a character changing over time. A character moment is a scene where we get to know the history, motivation and personality of a character better. Age of Ultron is chock full of character moments, some of the best coming near the beginning when we see most of the Avengers and their supporting casts at a party celebrating the toppling of a major HYDRA facility. The Warmachine story, the attempts to lift Thor’s Hammer and the rest of the banter in this scene do a great job letting us see into the minds of the characters and how they work off of each other.

Scarlet Witch’s dream sequences are another good character moment – for Romanoff. We get a glance into her past, the suggestion that she’s probably from the same assassin school that produced Peggy Carter’s rival in this year’s Agent Carter miniseries but still don’t learn so much we aren’t intrigued by her mystery.

Other great character moments abound in the visit to Barton’s “safe house” and the way the various Avengers bounce off his family of entirely normal people.

For that matter, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton feels a lot like the main character of this movie with all the great character moments he has throughout. Between his family showing up, his successfully resisting Scarlet Witch’s mind control, the constant hinting that he’s about to get dead only to wind up still breathing at the end and the speech he gets to make at the end about what it takes to be an Avenger and we walk out feeling like we’ve learned more about him than anyone else. Since he’s had less screen time than any Avenger that didn’t debut in this film that’s nice to see.

Not that the other characters don’t have some development. We get to see Captain Rogers behaving as the actual leader of the group and he does so with a humility and good grace that lets him avoid all the terrible cliches that often accompany leaders who claim strong moral cores and instead lead by his own example as much as his fighting prowess or intellect.

Stark is his usual glib self and Fury puts in an appearance as the more laid back but still formidable former superspy he’s become after the dissolution of SHIELD. It’s a good movie for touching base with all our heroes even if only a handful of them undergo serious character growth.

And let me say that neither character arcs nor character moments are strictly superior to one another. Good stories can be entirely one or the other. But great stories have character moments synched with advancing character arcs – and Age of Ultron doesn’t have that. While it’s a matter of personal taste I tend to prefer character arcs to character moments so, while I like this aspect, it wasn’t as strong for me as the good arcs in the first film. The character moments are still well written, though.

The Vision and The Tower 

Okay, a special word about my two least favorite parts of this film.

While I feel the plot of the story is a little dated in it’s approach to Ultron that’s not what I feel it’s biggest weakness is. That would be the fact that, after failing to create a functioning AI with the Ultron project, Tony immediately turns around and tries to implant an AI claiming to be JARVIS into the body Ultron built in Seoul. Yes, I know Tony’s schtick is hubris. But seriously, it’s hard to believe he didn’t learn any caution after the first AI went rogue. He didn’t even test the program he found to make sure it wasn’t a part of Ultron masquerading as JARVIS. This is just dumb, and feels like a complete undoing of most of his character development in the franchise up until this point.

Tony Stark stopped building weapons and faced rogue weapons contractors because he’d learned to take a little responsibility for his actions. Tony’s creating Vision cuts against that. The same story ends could have been achieved simply by having JARVIS sneak past Ultron and into the Vision body on his own – JARVIS out coded Ultron once after all. Or, better yet, the Vision could have been activated by some other agency that found it after Tony attempted to disposed of it. Both of these would have let the Vision be around for future movies and the latter option would have kept Vision from being shoved into an already over full movie. Poor writing decisions all around.

Also, the Hulkbuster sequence is a great action set piece. But the ending? With a massive tower collapsing followed by grit covered survivors staring at it in shock? I’m not sure what that was supposed to say.

Was it a 9/11 reference? Then it was in poor taste. Doubly so for the slapstick way the scene ended.

Was it not a 9/11 reference? Then how did it get through the editing process? It was in poor taste and everyone who worked on this movie was blind.

Was there supposed to be some sort of moral to the imagery? If so, it was poorly communicated. And in poor taste.

Final Verdict 

So I watched this movie and came out of the theaters stoked. How could that be given all the griping I just did?

That’s easy. It is a fun movie.

The action is big and bombastic and, while it doesn’t have quite the insane physicality of a wuxia film or the grit of an 80s action film but it’s exactly what we’d expect of a modern action film, only more so. In particular, the gratuitous use of CG to create “look, it’s like a comic panel” moments on screen will make you giggle or cringe. Personally, I liked them.

Robert Downey Jr. Is back with his muttering and off kilter improv moments and they even manage to find new fish-out-of-water gags for Captain America. And there are superheroes doing superhero things, saving people and scaring them at the same time, using cool gadgets and pulling impossible stunts. When the movie is weak it’s weak but when it’s fun it has to be experienced to be believed.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the strongest movie in the MCU, it’s probably not even in the top three. But it is fun and exciting, to the point you can almost forgive it for poor writing (or, more likely, poor editing). I just wish it had better story writing to go with the spectacle and wit.

Genrely Speaking: Fairy Tales

A few weeks ago I talked about Cinderella, the new and old films plus the character, and in the middle of it I had to stop to kinda define what, exactly, a fairy tale was. That got me thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there was some place I could send people so they could know exactly what I meant – okay, enough of that you know what time it is.  Genrely Speaking is where I define literary genres, or at least explain what I mean when I mention them. And since I work at a library that means I know what I’m talking about, right?

No.

Never let that stop me before, though, so let’s get cracking, shall we? Fairy tales are a pretty amorphous group of stuff in the modern era, in fact some people will call anything with a remotely unnatural element to it a fairy tale, but in general it’s a characteristic genre referring to a story with these elements:

  1. An emphasis on circumstances. Jack of beanstalk fame is a fatherless boy who’s family is very poor. Cinderella is a fatherless girl who’s family is wealthy but abuses her. Hamlin is a city overrun with rats. These are the circumstances of the character, the situation they find themselves in, and we tend to be presented with them very matter-of-factly. There’s no backstory, these are just the facts of life. There’s no introspection, each hearer is left to fill that part in on their own.
  2. Character in action. This is the heart of the story. Jack trades his cow for beans, he climbs a magic beanstalk, he robs a giant and defeats him with cunning. He is bold even when others would call it foolish and it pays off in the end. Cinderella serves quietly and kindly in spite of all cruelty but when the opportunity to leave comes she takes it. She is humble and charitable but not a doormat. Hamlin’s leaders make a promise to get rid of the rats but then backpedal on it. They look after their own but are duplicitous with strangers. We never see deeply into the motivations of these decisions, almost as if the people who told the stories knew their hearers would all have different motivations and just wanted to encourage people to act in a certain way regardless of their motives because certain actions were better for all involved.
  3. Poetic justice. The protagonist comes out ahead in ways that show their actions and attitudes were better than those of their enemies. The giant dies chasing Jack even though, as the bigger man, it would probably have been better to admit he’d been outdone and left it at that. Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother loose their eyes and parts of their feet because they did not have the humility to admit they were beaten or the charity to let Cinderella move to a station above theirs (not that she would see herself as above them) while if their heart had been more like Cinderella’s they would have been in no danger. The leaders of Hamlin loose all the young people of the city to the Pied Piper because they broke their word. The end of a fairy tale is always a dispensation of justice be it ever so harsh.

What are the weaknesses of a fairy tale? The biggest two are simplicity and brevity.

Fairy tales are simple stories without much depth to them. They’re stories with morals ranging from the blunt to the anvilicious and they exist pretty much only to tell us why we should or should not behave in a certain way. There’s not much you can cram into that and, as a result, most fairy tale characters experience no character arc, have no background and speak for themselves very little if at all. The stories they live in can be retold in just a few hundred words because really, what more do you need for such flat characters?

What are the strengths of a fairy tale? Simplicity and brevity.

Yes, the characters of a fairy tale barely qualify as “characters” but their very simplicity makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes and wonder if we could do the things they did – and then be inspired to strive for or avoid those actions. The brevity inherent to the genre makes it that much easier to remember the stories. And the whole thing in aggregate has made for one of the most memorable and prolific groups of stories in Western literature.

Walt Disney built much of his empire on fairy tales. Bill Willingham’s Fables is a love letter to the genre. There’s plenty to love about these little tales from long ago even though they aren’t the kinds of stories we tell now. So don’t knock ’em – anything that can last that old has to have something good at its core.

The Mechanics of Writing

Cursive doesn’t mean screaming profanity while writing but when I was learning penmanship I would certainly have been tempted. Granted my entire repertoire of bad language at the time was learned from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so it’s not like I would have had a huge selection to work with, but the point stands: I hated cursive when I was learning to write. Now being homeschooled I eventually got out of it – my mother just felt that my trying to learn the art was taking up too much time, both in that I wasn’t learning it in spite of the time we spent on it and that my frustration at my inability to master the skill was impeding my ability to focus on other schoolwork.

So when I learned that Common Core was abolishing the need to teach cursive handwriting I wasn’t terribly surprised. I know I wasn’t the only person who was very frustrated with it as a child and many people certainly can’t write in it as an adult. Imagine my surprise when I heard so many people crying out the abolishment of a “fundamental part of our culture.”

So I thought for funsies I would take a quick look at this more literal side of the art of writing and explain to all those cursive apologists why I think removing this part of penmanship from elementary education is a good idea. There are, as I see it, three questions we have to consider when looking at cursive handwriting and they are thus.

Is cursive handwriting necessary to the purpose of written communication?

I feel that it is not. Writing is for communicating ideas and the extreme variance in an individual’s handwriting is more pronounced in cursive than in block print. Jokes about a doctor’s handwriting show how incomprehensible a stranger’s handwriting can be. Since the purpose of written communication is to clearly convey a message I don’t think cursive handwriting is directly required to meet the function of handwriting and at times it is actually counterproductive. The one exception is when cursive is used in a signature – but more on that in a few paragraphs.

Is cursive handwriting educationally beneficial?

There are studies that indicate that learning to write by hand stimulates the brain in ways that other kinds of learning and communication do not. Well and good but articles like this one are just talking about writing by hand – the kind of writing doesn’t seem to be that important. They even talk about writing in Chinese or just writing out math problems to gain an understanding of concepts, the important thing is associating motion and symbols with ideas regardless of the kind of motions or symbols. Likewise, the benefits apply to people of all ages not just young people but more on that in a second.

There is a side to this that I haven’t heard discussed at all. Handwriting classes often come before other literacy skills and in my personal experience that was a bad thing. You see, I spent all that time learning to write by hand when I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing with all those shapes I was learning to make. My vocabulary was small, I hadn’t read any stories that gave me an appreciation for the written word – I was being expected to master a skill I could see no practical application for! With no understanding of the potential of the English Language teaching me handwriting was akin to handing someone the key to a treasure vault but the key weighed fifty pounds and no one told me what it did. I just couldn’t see the point. Worse, cursive demanded a degree of physical dexterity I did not possess and wouldn’t for a while.

For years I would loathe writing, not because I was bad at it but because I couldn’t perform the physical act of writing without associating it with the incredible frustration trying to master cursive writing had caused me. I actually wrote a couple of short stories before I turned ten – but I did it using a word processor, not pencil and paper. I am not convinced the benefits of learning cursive handwriting outweigh the drawbacks of causing students who lack the early manual dexterity to master cursive writing to associate the act of writing with frustration.

In an ideal world every student would be allowed to master these literacy tasks at their own rate but in the one size fits all world of nationally administered curriculum I think it’s better to remove an obstacle to learning to write and enjoying it than to leave part of the class frustrated with writing for very little educational gain.

Is cursive handwriting artistically important?

Yes. Very much so. You see, I don’t object to cursive handwriting – my problem is who it is taught to. We use cursive as a means of individual expression in the same way we might use tone of voice. Signatures are likewise an expression of our identity, something unique and personal. That’s good, but it’s not something we can reasonably expect from an elementary student – most of them are not at the point where they’re good enough at expressing themselves . Ideally understanding cursive would be something we expect of students come middle school or early high school. It could be taught as part of an introductory course on art, along with teaching on hieroglyphs, calligraphy both Western and Eastern, and illuminated manuscripts.

Students could choose to learn to write cursive as part of the hands on side of the arts program or study other forms of art like sculpture or photography but reading cursive should probably be a mandatory part of the course, much like understanding the composition of a painting is also mandatory in arts courses. Since people of all ages benefit from handwriting there’s no harm done in waiting to teach cursive. Also, middle-high school is where personalities really begin to gel so it’s a good time to begin developing a signature – a mark that really identifies who you are.

I hardly think all this talk is going to end the hand wringing over handwriting, if for no other reason than the fact that my readership is so small. But I would like to say, just one more time, that I don’t have a problem with cursive penmanship – just the way it was traditionally taught. Cursive needs to be looked at as an art form and not a fundamental literacy skill.

Yes, I know many people learned it as such and did just fine but that doesn’t make the method ideal. In a world of top down education removing cursive from the curriculum entirely is probably the best solution we’re going to get until we get tired of the Department of Education and kick Congress out of our local schools. In the meantime, I don’t think cursive is going to die out.

You see, it’s a very beautiful way to write and beautiful things are taken up because they’re beautiful. With YouTube tutorials for everything under the sun people who want to master cursive need look no further than videos like this one and, like all art forms, their cursive will probably develop best if they work out what exactly their handwriting should look like on their own. The rest of us can block print our way through life and express our love of beauty through story, song or whatever other method best suits us. And when it comes to personal expression, isn’t modeling it the best way to teach anyways?