Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

Hey there

Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.

Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.

Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.

Missed the whole damn thing.

It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.

So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.

P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.

Character problems and what to do about them

So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Award and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing.

Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing.

And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Bonus story of Pam & Guy: As a kid, I didn’t talk except to whisper to Pam, one year older, and she’d act as my interpreter and diplomat. When hungry, I’d stand in front of the fridge until Pam showed up to open it, then I’d point at food and she’d get it. Totally relied on her. And little three-year-old me must have planned for the worst, an apocalyptic world without Pam, because I remember finding petrified carrots under my pillow, stashed away in case of emergency.

Put your writing to the Screen Time Test

writing meme spiderman dear diary

While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.

This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)

So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.

I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”

And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.

The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.

Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

worst-twilight-memes-funny-pictures-8

CHAPTER ONE – FIRST SIGHT

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That

(END OF PAGE 1)

Continue reading “The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT”

Reading times for famous book-like objects

Reading times for these famous piles of dead trees

Okay, I’m surprised that George R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Martin wins this contest, though for some reason they skipped over Stephen the King, who may be a literary god, but who also can turn a grocery list into 1,034 pages featuring an evil clown.

Here’s the link to the original post, and God bless them for doing this.

Also, J.R.R. Tolkien gets credit for writing some kind of 60-page prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS that was like some sophomore history sociology major’s paper on hobbits and elves. It put the B in Boring and made me throw the book across the room, which was hard to do since I was on a beach in Maui, drinking margaritas and in the Best Mood Ever.

Also-also: J.R.R. Tolkien gets double-credit for starting the whole stupid trend of fantasy and sci-fi authors, male and female, renouncing first names in favor of initials for some reason. The trend will continue and hipster authors writing about elves with lightsabers riding dragons will, within ten years, pick pen names like “GRRRRR the Grizzly Bear” and “Sw33tn3ss M00nb3&m the Z0mbi3k1ll3r” and “Darth Elvis Skywalker III.” Bonus points if you indie-publish a book with any of those pen-names.

WORD CRIMES by Weird Al is a writer’s anthem

music video meme sound of music

Back in the day, Weird Al Yankovic was proudly, loudly weird. Today, he’s the master of parody videos, which keep getting better and better.

This one is a dream for writers and editors everywhere. He speaks the truth. Sing it, Al, and let the rumors that you’re retiring be false.

 

Success is often accidental

success kid

How many times have you seen somebody trip, or do something stupid, then they act like, “Oh, I meant to do that?”

The reverse is actually more interesting: you did something random and unintentional and it turned out great.

I didn’t write a silly blog post with the intention of WordPress putting it on the front page. Which is probably why they did. You can’t force it.

Here’s that post: How weird news teaches us great storytelling

So a big thanks to the editors at WP and all the people who visited, commented and subscribed.

Bad Writing: The Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse

Want to become a better writer? Learn from bad writing: how to spot it, how to fix it and how to prevent the disease from happening in the first place.

Note: All writers, including myself, tend to go overboard at times. As a reformed journalist who now writes speeches, blog posts and novels, I will happily say that I’ve committed every possible writing sin at one time or another–and no, this is not meant to make anyone recycle their Underwood and switch to pottery.

So as a public service, here are the Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse:

1) The Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock

This comes from never learning that out in the real world, nobody wants to read blog posts, novels or screenplays written in the same dense style of term papers about dialectical materialism.

How to spot it: There is never a short, simple sentence, not when long, insanely complicated ones will do. Pretentious Poppycock will have sentences flavored with giant German words that are too intellectually sophisticated to be translated into English, though schadenfreude has appeared in low-brow venues such as Newsweek often enough to lose all its previous cachet.

Writers of Pretentious Poppycock are actually offended if the masses (a) buy, (b) read or (c) dare to enjoy their work, because that means (d) it is not dense and sophisticated enough and (e) they have therefore failed via mainstream success and must (f) become an elusive recluse working on a new, six-volume masterpiece that will take 26 years to complete.

2) The Gonzo Kool-Aid Acid Trip

There are subspecies of gonzo, entirely dependent upon which substance the writer employs to destroy his liver: gallons of whiskey, blunts the size of telephone poles or some kind of toxic toad sweat they picked up in Brazil.

The whiskey types tend to go hyper-macho. Their sentences are shorter than Hemingway, because Hemingway was a wussbag nancypants who only watched bullfights. Get in there. Kill a bull, with your bare hands.

This trap is a particular danger for newspaper reporters who decide to write novels.

Another form of gonzo writing happily bounces around through time, since chronological order is for squares — or goes ironic hipster with a 500-page book, written all in haiku, about a retired accountant who makes sculptures out of lint from the dryer.

While the style of writing is completely different than the Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock, gonzos are also typically unhappy if too many of the masses buy, understand or like their work, because that means they sold out and not enough fans took up their suggestion to “steal this book,” though the money does allow them to pay steady rent and purchase a higher class of bourbon and psychedelics.

However, a taste of success will also remove the last remains of internal censors from a gonzo of any stripe.

3) The Purple Prose of Cairo 

This is gonzo writing without the drugs, Loony Tunes Lit-rah-Ture, performance art with ink. It’s passages chock full of modifiers or throwing words around the canvas of Word like Jackson Pollack chucking paint on the floor.

Tell me if you’d pay money to read more of this:

Ethel.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.

Whether you’re a reader, English Lit professor or a mom wondering if your teenager is alright upstairs, this sort of text is makes you buy something else at Barnes and Noble, scribble a big fat F with a red marker or google “therapist” on your iPhone.

It’s bad, right? Incoherent, and I didn’t make this up or pick a bad section of something that gets better. The whole poem is like this. But no, this is Gertrude Stein, so it is magical and amazing and you’re just too low-brow and uneducated to understand how brilliant that bit of word wizardry truly is.

4) Dear Diary

Everything is in the first person: blog posts, poetry, newspaper stories, memoirs, novels, screenplays.

It all goes through the filter of me-me-me.

The Series of Tubes has enabled this to reach epic, world-wide proportions. In the bad old days, being a writer meant slaving away at a newspaper, writing novels that didn’t sell until you died and became famous or writing in an actual diary that you locked up and hide in the sock drawer so your brother Steven, the snoopy creep, couldn’t read it and tell his idiot friends at school.

Now every writer is required by law to have a blog, be on Twitter and live on Facebook, so it’s quote possible to spend 20 percent of your day writing a masterpiece and 80 percent of your time at the keyboard documenting every tragedy, insult and triumph.

Dear Diary can be mundane, giving you daily updates about the type of sandwich they’re eating (PB & J today, then some laundry!). It can be full of humblebrag name-dropping nonsense. Or it can be one giant Pity Party.

If Dear Diary writes a screenplay or novel, the hero is a barely disguised doppleganger, except younger, taller, better looking and richer.

You also find this in bad mysteries about often written in the first person. Here’s a great first line from a 2013 entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest for truly wretched first lines: “This was a very easy mystery for me to solve, so I never considered putting it in a story until I was telling some friends about it, and I realized the average person, such as yourself, has trouble figuring it out, although it is really laughably simple.” — Thor F. Carden, Madison, TN

The most epic Dear Diary moment in fiction I can remember is an entire chapter of a Clive Cussler novel where his hero, Dirk Pitt, has a classic car race with a car collector and Dirk-Pitt clone named … Clive Cussler.

5) The Never-Ending Lecture

This style of writing has an agenda and woe unto those who ignore it. It beats you over the head with a literary sledgehammer, damning you for not understanding how right the writer is, and how wrong the world is for not seeing it the first 593 times they explained it.

Lectures don’t even attempt to be subtle. Every bit of prose and dialogue is on the nose and characters are made of the thinnest cardboard.

Combined with the Ivory Tower, the Never-Ending Lecture may spend 235,000 words on the history of natural gas industry in Paraguay and the lessons to be learned about America’s telecom monopolies.

Matched up the Purple Prose of Cairo, a Lecture may give birth to THE FOUNTAINHEAD and another novel, ATLAS SHRUGGED, that contains a speech that goes on for sixty pages. Yes, not six pages, sixty. (Note: Was that too easy? Yes, yes it was.)

6) The Grammar Nazi

This is the polar opposite, and mortal enemy, of both Gonzo and Loony Tunes Lit-rah-ture.

Each sentence is absolutely fine in terms of usage. There are no dangling modifiers or split infinitives — and nothing ever, ever ends in a preposition.

Text written in the Grammar Nazi style devotes all of its energies into being technically correct, but at the price of having no soul, no life, no heart. And you are bored out of your gourd, even if YOU HAVE NO GOURD AT ALL.

How to fix and prevent this nonsense

Despite the incredible variety in this list — and you could probably come up with six more types — there’s a common thread to all bad writing.

That thread is this: the writer treats the audience with indifference, if not arrogance and contempt. It’s all about doing things their specific way. Readers who want to enjoy or understand their work, and complain about it being difficult, dense, narcissistic or weird — well, clearly all those readers are the problem, not the writer.

You can avoid all six of these bad kinds of writing by remembering the First Rule of Rhetoric, which is three simple words: “Know your audience.”

The audience isn’t you. Never is and never will be.

The audience isn’t even your mom, who might be the only person willing to read the thing, and even then, mom tends to lie and say yes, she loved it, where’s the rest?

If you want to write for you and you alone, do it in a diary and lock it up in that sock drawer.

Writing should be read, understood and enjoyed other people. Period.

That doesn’t mean good writing is shallow, low-brow and always happy.

Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell and every issue of The Economist prove you can write intelligently about deep subjects without resorting to any of these types of bad writing.

People want actual substance, some real meat on those writing bones. They want to laugh and cry, to learn new things.

They want to think and ponder, and sometimes have so much fun that they read it again and again.

Let them.

It’s that simple.

Bad writing puts barriers between readers and all of those things.

When your ego puts up any of those walls–and it happens to every writer–go back and tear them down.