Analyzing East of Eden – 1/17

EastOfEden

It’s been a while since I talked about writing, as my mind has been more consumed with film production. I took a few minutes today to read a brief excerpt from East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, and analyze it. I think this is a great practice because it helps me understand the techniques great dramatists employ in order to have the most emotional impact on viewers. Here is the excerpt, followed by my thoughts:

***

Ethel tried to keep her fingers from grabbing at the money. [Kate] fanned the bills like a poker hand – four tens. Her mouth began to work with emotion.

Ethel said, “I kind of hoped you’d see your way to let me take more than forty bucks.”

“What do you mean?”

“Didn’t you get my letter?”

“What letter?”

“Oh!” said Ethel. “Well, maybe it got lost in the mail. They don’t take no care of things. Anyways, I thought you might look after me. I don’t feel good hardly ever. Got a kind of weight dragging my guts down.” She sighed and then she spoke so rapidly that Kate knew it had been rehearsed.

“Well, maybe you remember how I’ve got like second sight,” Ethel began. “Always predicting things that come true. Always dreaming stuff and it come out. Fella says I should go in the business. Says I’m a natural medium. You remember that?”

“No,” said Kate. “I don’t.”

“Don’t? Well, maybe you never noticed. All the others did. I told ’em lots of things and they come true.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I had this-here dream. I remember when it was because it was the same night Faye died.” Her eyes flicked  up at Kate’s cold face. She continued doggedly, “It rained that night, and it was raining in my dream – anyways, it was wet. Well, in my dream I seen you come out the kitchen door. It wasn’t pitch-dark – moon was coming through a little. nd the dream thing was you. You went out to the back of the lot and stooped over. I couldn’t see what you done. Then you come creeping back.”

“Next thing I knew – why, Faye was dead.” She paused and waited for some comment from Kate, but Kate’s face was expressionless.

Ethel waited until she was sure Kate would not speak. “Well, like I said, I always believed in my dreams. It’s funny, there wasn’t nothing out there except some smashed medicine bottles and a little rubber tit from an eye-dropper.”

Kate said lazily, “So you took them to a doctor. What did he say had been in the bottles?”

“Oh, I didn’t do nothing like that.”

“You should have,” said Kate.

“I don’t want to see nobody get in trouble. I’ve had enough trouble myself. I put that broke glass in an envelope and stuck it away.”

Kate said softly, “And so you are coming to me for advice?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” said Kate. “I think you’re a worn-out old whore and you’ve been beaten over the head too many times.”

“Don’t you start saying I’m nuts-” Ethel began.

“No, maybe you’re not, but you’re tired and you’re sick. I told you I never let  friend down. You can come back here. You can’t work but you can help around, clean and give the cook a hand. You’ll have a bed and you’ll get your meals. How would tht be? And a little spending money.”

Ethel stirred uneasily. “No, ma’am.” She said. “I don’t think I want to – sleep here. I don’t carry that envelope around. I left it with a friend.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I thought if you could see your way to let me have a hundred dollars a month, why, I could make out and maybe get my health back.”

“You said you lived at the Southern Pacific Hotel?”

“Yes, ma’am – and my room is right up the hall from the desk. The night clerk’s a friend of mine. He don’t never sleep when he’s on duty. Nice fella.”

Kate said, “Don’t wet your pants, Ethel. All you’ve got to worry about is how much does the ‘nice fell’ cost. Now wait a minute.” She counted six more ten-dollar bills from the drawer in front of her and held them out.

“Will it come the first of the month or do I have to come here for it?”

“I’ll send it to you,” said Kate. “And, Ethel,” she continued quietly, “I still think you ought to have those bottles analyzed.”

Ethel clutched the money tightly in her hand. She was bubbling over with triumph and good feeling.

***

*Let me preface my analysis by confessing I have not read this novel in its entirety. Nevertheless, I’d like to share my insights and you can correct me in the comment section if I’m wrong.

This scene is great in so many ways. It is really a mini-story, and clearly demonstrates Steinbeck’s dominance as one of the greatest writers of all time. I remember when I first started studying writing, I read somewhere that Steinbeck preferred to use one syllable words. I had always thought his style of writing made him a legend, but now that I have a better understanding of some of the more abstract writing concepts, I can see his ability to play with the emotions of readers is what makes his pen so devastating.

Right from the start, we can see that Ethel is desperate for money, so clearly this is her objective. But it is not enough for her to simply accept the original offering, and that is what makes her courageous here – she wants every nickel she can squeeze out of Kate.

Kate, on the other hand, begins the scene by desiring Ethel get out of her hair. After Ethel all-but threatens to turn in evidence that could potentially put her behind bars, Ethel changes her tune and her new motivation becomes doing whatever it takes to keep Ethel quiet.

What I like most about this scene is how Ethel goes about manipulating Kate to fork over more dough. She never explicitly states that she knows Kate is responsible for the death of Faye, but she implies it through a most devious way – by slyly feigning to have psychic abilities, and almost comedic-ally stating she had a dream where she witnessed Kate’s crime.

Once Kate gets the hint, Ethel has her over a barrel – and knows it. After a brief outburst of her true anger at the situation, Kate presents Ethel with a much more generous offer than the original forty bucks. But this still isn’t good enough for Ethel(rising tension!). Ethel requests a hundred dollars on the first of every month, then has the audacity to requests that it be delivered, so she does not have to go out of her way to retrieve it.

I believe that Kate threatens Ethel when she tells her that her biggest concern should be how much the night clerk, who “never sleeps”, costs. She appears to be implying that she could always pay him enough money to look the other way while Kate has somebody eliminate Ethel.

This scene features two foes with clashing objectives. Their dialogue, at the surface, appears to remain cordial – but the truth is always written in the subtext. This is one area of writing I need to improve upon. I have a bad habit of allowing characters to state their objectives outright, and go about getting their way through direct and obvious threats. This is fine for characters who maneuver through life this way, but it is so much more fun and engaging when characters behave in ways that force viewers to read between the lines in order to keep up with their motives and ploys.

I hope these insights have helped you in some way. I already know these realizations will benefit me in my own writing. See you tomorrow at 7:00 am PST.

  • Thomas M. Watt
  • Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 1952. Print.
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Script Coverage – Secret Life of Walter Mitty

walter mitty

The following is a script analysis of the popular film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The numbers contained in parenthesis reference page numbers, and any digit following a decimal helps approximate the location of a source on the given page. For example, this is how I would cite this sentence (1.3).

At the very least, I hope that any of you who aspire to become published authors/screenwriters will realize that the “higher-ups” who judge the quality of your material make their decisions based on how well a story excels in several distinct categories.

*I am the original author of this analysis.

* * *

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

A great premise, strong lead, and witty dialogue make for a lot of laughs in this satirical take on the unrewarding, high-pressure life of a typical cubicle worker. Though it starts off well-paced and rolling, the slow mid-section and divided climax take away the rising tension necessary for an explosive ending. The introduction of too many short-lived side characters and the ease with which Walter tracks down Sean O’Connell’s latest known destinations work slightly against the emotional impact this could have made. This is most comparable to “Stranger than Fiction”.

PREMISE (4)

Walter can’t find the cover photo for the final issue of Time magazine, and travels around the world in order to find it. His job is at stake, which is also the only thing he has going for him in his life, despite its being viewed by others as a meaningless position. The premise provides solid ground for fodder as well as an in depth look at the unrewarding life of a modest, hard-working cubicle worker. The premise would be strengthened if Walter hated to travel and preferred to do nothing more than slave away for Time magazine, a company which he should have initially felt sentimental about. The premise is similar to “Around the World in Eighty Days”.

STRUCTURE (3)

The inciting incident is Walter’s discovery that cut number twelve, the cover photograph that captures the quintessence of life, is missing (9.5). After learning the company plans to retain only eleven employees and his own job weighs in the balance (29.5), Walter makes his first plot point decision by choosing to fly to Greenland to locate Sean O’Connell (30.9). Walter learns that he has been let go before he has found the photograph (79.2), which prematurely releases tension by decreasing Walter’s motivation to continue in his pursuit. The climax is a let down, as Walter casually delivers the photograph to Mark Chatham in a Four Seasons Hotel hallway (113.4).

CHARACTER (3)

Outside of Walter, who plays an awkward, constantly fumbling-through-life protagonist (35.1), there are only two strong supporting roles. One is Doug, whose witty dialogue and personal interest in Walter is funny and original (48.8). The other is Sean O’Connell, who plays a larger than life photographer who is fearless at tackling any obstacle (92.7). Unfortunately, Doug and Sean have little on screen time, leaving Walter to be surrounded most often by briefly appearing side characters.

CONFLICT (3)

Though conflict is present in every scene, and is executed in unique ways, the lack of rising tension amounts to a weak climax. Walter finds himself in one uncomfortable situation after another as he travels the world. In one instance he finds himself in the water with either a shark or a porpoise fin circling him (41.5). in another he is kayaking in the way of triathlon swimmers (51.1). When Walter returns to America to assist his mother with her piano (58.1), he strays from the core conflict for too long. Walter’s discovery that he has been fired long before the climax arrives is a crucial error that kills any hope for a feel-good ending (79.2).

DIALOGUE (4)

Great comic timing and constant belittlement directed Walter’s way keep humor and entertainment high throughout. Walter’s awkward, uncertain character is obvious from the beginning, when he first allows Todd, an Eharmony counselor, to lead him into a private conversation (4.3). His quirky personality is made all-the-more apparent through subtle suggestions and phrases, such as his thanking Rich for “putting his back into it” (moving a piano) (21.8). After the cab driver tells him that she is the queen of Greenland, Walter uncomfortably refers to her as “your majesty” (32.8). Todd from Eharmony frequently offers insights into Walter’s life and character arc through witty lines, such as his realization that Walter can add swims with dolphin to his profile page (48.7).

PACING (3)

The good, well-paced rhythm established early on gets lost in the middle and never fully recaptured by the end. Walter’s decision to locate Sean propels the action forward, starting with a plane flight to Greenland, and soon followed with a helicopter drop off, which nearly results in Walter getting attacked by a shark (41.8). After this series of fast-moving developments, Walter decides to go home and help his mother move a piano (52.9), a subplot that takes up too much screen time (59.5). Though tension builds strongly throughout a series of scenes that involve a riot, a concert, and a dispute with the higher ups of Walter’s company, the climax is a few scenes removed, and arrives in the low-conflict setting of a hotel hallway (114.4), well after Walter’s big character breakthrough (104.9).

ORIGINALITY (4)

Everything about this is original. Glimpses from Walter’s imagination provide for an amusing display of where his mind is currently at. The physical characteristics of musk ox are creative and unique. Tim Naughton’s record for hitting the highest singing note ever is not only unique enough to set him apart from other characters, but serves as a great set-up for the high-pitched weeping he lets out later. Walter’s discovery that his mother has been in contact with Sean O’Connell comes as an unexpected twist. This is most comparable to “The Bucket List”.

LOGIC (3)

Many events and decisions in this are illogical, but because of its being a romantic comedy most of these errors are permissible. For instance, Walter’s Eharmony page will not allow him to wink at another girl online because his personality lacks dimensions (18.3). He takes a picture of an indistinguishable thumb with him to Greenland, and miraculously locates the person whom it belongs to (37.3). Sitting in a Subaru that Sean O’Connell recently slept in, Walter finds a scrap of paper with Sean’s itinerary, of all things, jotted down on it (44.8). Despite his willingness to do just about whatever it takes to track down the famous photographer, Walter casually abandons his quest and returns to America to help his mother move a piano (53.1).

TONE (4)

The tone remains consistent throughout. Frequently Walter struggles with obstacles that are foreign to his nature, making for hilarious scenes that still manage to maintain solid conflict (51.1). The tone lends some strong sub-text to the difficulties a cubicle worker faces in devoting his life to a company that is indifferent towards him (81.5). Walter’s awkward, uncertain, trying-to-please nature (21.9) is fitting given the intended genre as well as the demographic.

WRITING ABILITY (4)

Outside of simple misspellings and occasional grammatical errors, the formatting is solid, as are the scene and character descriptions. (1.5 “wait” not “waits” / 7.7 “music” not “muzic” / 9.2 “Walter unwraps” not “Walter’s unwrapped” / 15.5 “Cheryl laughs” not “Cheryl’s laughed” / 35.3 “your” not “you’re / 36.8 “folk dance” not “folk dance dance” / 41.8 “moment” not “moments” / 49.9 “Rich does” not “Rich has” / 62.6 “your” not “you’re” / 70.9 “lying” not “laying” / 71.4 “Cheryll notices this” not “Cheryll has noticed this” / 78.3 “song has” not “song’s” / 84.3 “information has been” not “information’s been” / 100.9 “Chatham finishes” not “Chatham finished”)

  • Thomas M. Watt

Author of Master

What is a Premise?

ice-cream-truck-2

I know I told many of you I’d be discussing the indie script I’m working on today, but with all my illusions of grandeur I’ve decided I’d be more comfortable discussing the importance premise holds for storytellers.

According to grammarabout.com,  a premise is: A proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.

This term is thrown around a lot in literature and screen-writing circles. If somebody asks you what the premise of your story is, they’re basically saying “What’s it all about?”

I remember when I spent a year working on a book series that never saw the light of day. I knew nothing about plot, 3-act structure, or even what makes for good conflict. I knew I had a brilliant idea that I was obsessed with, and that’s it… No wonder the books sucked.

I attended a writers conference eager to pitch my first book to agents and publishers. Enlightenment struck when I sat down to explain my story. All I could do was discuss the interesting events and characters, while maintaining the confidence of a reality star interviewing for a position as a brain surgeon.

When you understand premise, you’ll understand the concept of your story and be better able to explain it. A premise should include:

  1. The protagonist
  2. The antagonist
  3. The inciting incident
  4. The obstacles faced by the protagonist
  5. The stakes of the quest.

Here is a cliche premise I’ll make off the top of my head to give you an idea. I’ll link each subject with its corresponding number from the list above.

A chiseled ice-cream driver’s(1) ride is turned upside down when Harry(2) and his cronies bust into the back of his truck(3) with axes. If he doesn’t defy the laws of rush hour traffic(4) and get the ruthless pre-teens to Disneyland within 30 minutes(5), his understanding of a banana-split will take on a whole new meaning(5 again).

Ok, that wasn’t exactly cliche. Weirdly horrific would be more apropos. But when you can condense these elements of your story into one paragraph, you’ll be making leaps and bounds of progress. For one thing, this is what agents and publishers are looking for when you query them. Secondly, understanding how much these elements impact your story as a whole will help you put something together that readers will enjoy before you even set pen to paper. To make a premise stronger, and a story more appealing, turn up the degrees of each element.

  1. chiseled ice-cream driver – sounds like a strong, capable man. A good story features an antagonist who is more capable than our hero. So let’s make this a sixteen year-old girl with braces (regardless of your opinion of stereotyping, readers will always assume qualities about your characters from the moment they are introduced. You may not like it, but you’re better off accepting it)
  2. Harry – Any kid with an axe scares the shit out of me. Why don’t we give throw in a free black-eye with some bruises. Sounds like his dad beats his ass and he’s probably got some psychological issues that make him more dynamic than before. Also, let’s upgrade his axe to a chainsaw.
  3. Bust into the truck – Nah, how bout they planned this shit? At a red light they come sprinting from all corners of the neighborhood and make a tactical play at breaking into that ice-cream mobile.
  4. Rush hour traffic – Well, this is an easy one. How bout we have her driving on the wrong side of the highway, just for the hell of it?
  5. The banana split joke is out, and we might as well kick the random 30 minute thing to the curb. How bout the gas tank is on low, and Harry tells our protagonist she’s dead if she can’t get them there before… the Peter Pan ride closes.

And here’s the new story description:

Lacey ‘the brace-face’s summer job takes a horrific turn when a black-eyed bully and his loser friends use chainsaws to infiltrate her ice-cream truck. If she doesn’t get them to Disneyland before gas runs out and the Peter Pan ride closes, she’ll die before ever telling Brad how she feels. But demanding she drive on the wrong side of the highway is a tell-tale sign that Harry is in the mood for murder.

Wow, that would be the most brutal YA novel I ever heard of. Anyway, I hope you get the idea (and noticed the added romance that is ALWAYS a benefit).

One big takeaway from this experiment should be that the most effective alteration I made between premises was giving Harry a black-eye. This doesn’t make him any more menacing, but does suggests he has some internal conflicts of his own, making him dynamic and more than just a standard ‘bad guy’. This story could then be made quite effective by reflecting his abusive upbringing with similar struggles that Lacy has experienced… Or contrasting them with the ones she hasn’t. An effective resolution to this story would demonstrate how Lacy overcame her childhood trauma through ‘X’, which a good writer would use as the overarching theme throughout the entirety of the story.

I brought up a lot here, and wouldn’t dare elaborate on the more complex subjects in this post. Just remember that when you know the premise of your story, not only can improve it exponentially, but you will be capable of describing it to others without feeling like a drunk explaining the meaning of life to a sober person.

  • Thomas M. Watt

Author of Master

 

 

A Case of the Dirty Dick

red beard

“Stand the fuck up. Time to settle this like men.”

Alex curled up on the couch and sat up, clutching his stomach. He rubbed his weary eyes and lifted the blanket – there was a condom on his limp dick, and it looked dirty.

“I said get up!”

Alex took his first glance at the imposing figure staring down at him – he was shirtless with brutal tattoos, burly, and had that thick, curly red beard only farm boys could grow. A cute dog lie on the ground at his feet, whimpering like a dying pet.

“Huh? Who are you?” said Alex.

“Who am I? Cut the shit. Don’t act like you forgot what you did last night.”

Alex set his hands on his knees, stared at the ground, then burped. In truth, he had absolutely no idea what he did last night to set “farm-boy John” off. He gulped back some throw up, then turned to look up at the big man again.

“Listen dude, I have no idea what-”

BAM. Before he could get another word out, farm-boy John cold-cocked him. The massive fist sent Alex off the couch to a colliding crash through the coffee table. Alex spit a piece of tooth out, then groaned as he stared at the broken wood he now lay on top of. What the fuck did I do?

“Get up!” Farm-boy John lunged to kick Alex in the gut, but Alex rolled away before the toe of his boot could connect. Alex picked up a table leg then shot to his feet, then wobbled briefly before finding his balance.

“Look dude, sorry about your girl. But I swear she must’ve come to me.”

“Girl?” Farm-boy John crossed his arms and started to laugh. “You that dumb to think this has got to do with a girl?”

Alex took another good look at farm-boy John – pasty-white skin, red curly beard, tobacco shreds in his teeth, red curly beard, dirty, calloused hands, red curly beard.

“No, obviously not… I’m sorry for whatever I said to you last night.” “Said to me?! You didn’t say shit to me! This is our first time talking face-to-face you dumb shit!”

“What the fuck did I do then?” said Alex.

“Don’t act like you don’t know.”

“I don’t.”

“Maybe this will help you ‘member.”

Farm-boy John picked up a tall lamp, then began swinging it wildly at Alex. Alex dodged and weaved as he backpedaled. He bumped into the couch, the kitchen table, then some pots and pans. His back was against the wall as the metal clanged on the kitchen floor, and he finally realized what he’d done.

“Wait!” said Alex. Farm-boy John stopped swinging the lamp

. “I remember now,” said Alex, staring down at one of the pots that was filled with a red paste. “I dyed your beard red.”

Farm-boy John spat on the floor. “‘Bout time you remembered.” Alex let out a sigh of relief. “Aw, man! I was worried I did something you were gonna kill me over.” Farm-boy John chuckled for a moment, then in a flash turned deadly serious. “You didn’t die my beard red you dumb fuck. And what you did is the reason I’m gonna kill you.” Alex looked around and gulped. “What… what did I do?” “You see this house?” Alex looked around. “Yeah?” “Recognize it?” “No?” said Alex. “That’s cause you broke in, drank my booze, puked on my floor, then had sex with my bitch.” Farm-boy John broke off the base of the lamp, then aimed the sharp pointed end at Alex’s gut. Alex gulped. “I thought you said no girls were involved?” “You had sex with my dog you sick-fuck.” Farm-boy John thrust forward, again and again, until soon Alex’s stomach was entirely empty.

* * *

Ok I’m not proud of that one, but let’s point out some of the reasons this kept you reading.

1. Starts with and revolves around a question – What did Alex do that made this big stranger want to kill him? The question begins right there with the first line from farm-boy John – “Get up, time to settle this like men.” – Those are fighting words ladies and gentlemen, and when a fight is about to break out we all look over and wonder the exact same thing – what happened?

2. Rising tension – It starts with words, then a punch to the face, then a swinging lamp. In other words, Alex finds himself in more dire trouble as the story progresses. If it were written so that Farm-boy John began the scene holding a loaded gun, then set it back in its holster, tension would be decreasing, which is always a no-no for drama.

3. False ending – I’m new to this, but it’s an area of craft I need to get better at. You know them as twists – you expect one thing to happen, then another thing does. Alex having dyed Farm-boy John’s beard red makes logical sense, because a lot of attention is drawn to that nasty thing throughout the story. It would have been a suitable ending, but never settle for suitable – aim for surprise and gratification.

4. Sorry dog lovers and respectable human beings.

As always, thanks for reading!

– Thomas M. Watt