Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Elements of Good Writing

The other night I watched Morituri with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner. The movie really called to mind how a great plot—and the absence or abundance of conflict—can make or break a story. Although the movie was set in 1942 during WWII, this wasn’t a beat ‘em up–bang ‘em up flick. Good story development and strong characters came together to create a suspenseful plot with goals that the viewer could really care about.

The protagonist and antagonist had opposing goals, but in spite of their imperfect natures, they were both likeable. It was hard to know who to root for. In fact, this added another dimension to the conflict. These two characters had clear and understandable motivation, deeply held beliefs that were challenged by circumstance, and both were changed by the events that took place. It’s perfect:

Two men on a freighter in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go and—in Brando’s case—only two days to achieve his goal. Brenner’s character doesn’t know what Mr. Kyle (Brando) is up to but still manages to make his life impossible. That makes for a fast-paced, engaging story. Set against the backdrop of WWII and Hitler’s Germany, this story not only changed these two imaginary characters; it changed me too. That’s good writing!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Crossing the Line

A writing colleague of mine and I were discussing the components of a good story. Mary analyzed Clint Eastwood's latest film "Grand Torino." I'm including a link so that you can download her analysis, but in the spirit of not ruining the movie, only posting the conversation that surrounded the analysis...

Mary: I just saw Grand Torino. What a great movie. The ending was very powerful. Did you see it? Watch it if you get a chance!

Kate: I haven't seen Grand Torino, but I only hear good reviews. Does it fit the hero's journey?

Mary: I think it does fit the hero's journey. Clint Eastwood is this crusty old SOB, a bigoted, opinionated loud mouth who doesn't give a damn about anyone. His wife has just died and his kids and grandkids are horrible, insufferable dolts, largely due to the fact that he never spent any time with them. He lives in a rundown neighborhood in Detroit now populated by Southeast Asians from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand displaced after the Vietnam War. Eastwood fought in Korea and has nothing but disdain for them. (Component of Hero's Journey: Ordinary World)

The next door neighbors are good people and there are rival gangs terrorizing the young boy who has no male role model. His cousin's gang is trying to get him to join and he is resisting. (Component of Hero's Journey: Call to Adventure, continued in the Download)

I was surprised and yet pleased by the ending. (Download the complete analysis, but if you haven’t seen the movie you may want to wait so as not to spoil the ending. (Mary's Analysis of Grand Torino)

Kate: This might be the reason why Eastwood has been so successful in his career. Everybody laughs at the spaghetti westerns he started out in, but my guess is that those movies pretty clearly followed this archetype of stepping over escalating thresholds that result in a change (however small) in the character. Almost all his stories have his protagonist starting out as self-absorbed and then taking someone under his wing and through that growing from caring only about the self to caring about someone else which results in a better world and someone who can take the next step.

Some writers shy away from literally having characters step over thresholds to achieve this, but I think it helps us as new writers to clearly define our scenes and identify the change we want to occur. And I'm noticing more and more that movies use the funeral/burial scene as a representation of the resurrection. The body dies but the idea lives on and will benefit the world.

I bet if we looked at the New Testament story of Jesus, we would find each of the elements of a hero's journey, which is why it speaks so powerfully to so many people. My guess is that the story of Buddha's life would also fit the hero's journey. Off on a tangent here, but I do believe that as we become more adept at putting our stories into this structure, we will also reach a point where we can make crossing the threshold more sublime.

Maybe we can do that without following these steps, but I look at the process like the theory of the "Hundredth Monkey." I'm stretching that concept, but I suppose we could randomly write a hundred stories and get one that accidently fits the structure, thereby grabbing the reader. That's a lot of writing though.

Or we can consciously apply the steps and grab them nearly every time, slowly working our way from the concrete realization of the steps--where the protagonist literally steps across a doorway or some other physical boundary line--to one that is more abstract. Some writers might get to skip the in-between steps, but I don't think I'm one of those charmed few.

Mary’s Analysis of Grand Torino

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Take Me Along

How does a story come into being? Quite a few of my peers start with an image—an old woman trundles down the street pushing a baby carriage full of aluminum cans. How did she get there? A dirty child sits in a corner sucking his thumb. Why isn’t he playing with the other children? A man snaps at a woman, and she runs away, crying. Are they married? Why are they fighting? These are writers’ questions. Fair questions. Good questions.

They are also a trap. These questions create great back story. They give the character a history and bring the protagonist to life. But these kinds of questions lead to a bad ending. While we tell the story of all the things the man did to the woman that caused her to end up crying and fleeing him, we as writers are likely to miss the key elements that make stories most intriguing to readers. Examine satisfying stories, and you’re likely to find protagonists making decisions that affect their life. Writers often run like terrified rabbits from the responsibility of making decisions for their characters. Yet that is what readers want most to participate in, even if the protagonist makes the wrong decision.

Part of the fun of watching B-rated horror flicks is cringing, biting our nails, and muttering under our breath, “Don’t, don’t, don’t open that door…” We can’t believe how stupid the blonde girl is when she reaches for the doorknob, but we are totally engaged in Blondie’s decision-making process. The best stories invoke an emotional response in the reader, and that reaction hinges on the decisions made by the protagonist, right or wrong, we want to go along.