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

Tension: James meets Penny Part 2

tension

In my last post, we discussed how to raise stakes for specific situations. By constantly reminding the reader of the importance of your protagonist’s current quest, whether through direct writing or subtext, you will build toward a rewarding climax. Even though this is only one chapter out of the book, it is important to constantly fill your stories with build-ups and pay-offs. If you missed my last post, I suggest you take the time to read it in order to understand the importance of it. Reach it by clicking here.

In the following scene, I’ve created a rise in tension by making the situation more and more uncomfortable for James. Remember from the last scene, his initial meeting with Penny is going to have an enormous effect on his psychological state, one way or the other. Here’s the excerpt from “A New Kingdom.”

* * *

       “That’s it kid, I can’t watch you embarrass yourself any longer.” Roy tossed his cards, stood up, and walked toward the group. James looked away nervously, hoping to God that Roy wouldn’t do what James was certain he was about to do.

“Excuse me, miss – it’s Penny, correct?”

James could hear Penny and the rest of her group slowly come to a stop.

“Yes, that’s me.”

James watched Roy cup his hands together and speak more elegantly than he ever had before.

“Well Penny, my name is Roy, and that there’s my friend James.” He pointed right at him with two fingers glued together.

James looked away. Every part of him wanted to smash his own face into the wall. The other part of him wanted to tackle Roy.

“Give us a wave, James,” said Roy.

James gulped, then looked back and waved hesitantly with a terribly corny smile.

“You see Penny, James here is the greatest guy I’ve ever known. And he’s done so many great things for me, I wanted to help him out a bit.”

“Oh, O.K,” said Penny.

Roy continued. “And this great guy, who I like to call James the great, he really digs ya, Penny. He says you’re the most beautiful gal he has ever set eyes on. Every time you walk by, make your bed, or read a book, James is watching you.”

Penny took a step back and looked horrified.

“Don’t worry, Penn. James is no stalker. As a matter of fact, he told me yesterday he wants to start a stalker awareness club. You know what’s not a joke? How lovely James thinks you are. I think you ought a give him a chance. After all, you two are the same age, stuck underground in a base, it seems like it’s meant to be, don’t ya think?”

James looked up at the ceiling. He wanted God to hear his prayer. He prayed that the brick ceiling above would collapse and kill him. And if it wasn’t too much trouble, to please let it kill Roy as well.

“Fine,” said Penny with a shrug, “I’ll meet him.”

“Best decision you ever made.”

As Roy walked Penny over, James wiped instant oatmeal crumbs from his jeans and held his hand out for a handshake.

“You can call me James.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ‘James the Great’?”

James laughed loudly and for a bit longer than the joke deserved. He made a face at Roy like an awkward cry for help. Roy countered with a wink and a smile, then left him to fend for himself. James felt his heart in his throat. He stood up.

“James is fine. Uh, you like to read, huh?”

“I guess so… I never read much before, but down here I don’t have much of a choice, not in this hellhole.”

Afraid his nervousness might become visible, James put on the best front that he could. He leaned smoothly up-against the wall beside him, and casually slid his hand into his pocket.

“Yea, life is pretty plain down here. Me and crazy Roy pretty much just play cards all day. Life would be a ton better if it wasn’t for that stupid council, all those idiots do is make schedules and stupid restrictions. Without them, life down here would be great.”

Penny looked down at her feet, “Yeah, ha, right… Ummm, tell me about your friend Roy. How do you know him?”

“Met him the night of the invasion. Crazy Roy keeps it real, and he’s a former pro poker player! Plus he can play some tunes on the guitar, and I think he said he used to be a pilot or something.”

“That’s kinda cool.”

“Yeah, and he has all this chewing tobacco stuff, and he lets me take as much as I want.”

“Ew… Does he have any alcohol?”

“Oh ya, he does.”

Penny moved in and put her hands on James’ wrist. Her bracelets jingled, “James, me, you, and Roy. We’re drinking tonight!!”

“Well… yeah, okay.”

“Don’t tell me you’re scared?”

James laughed awkwardly, “I’m not scared, I’m down. I’ll ask Roy.”

“Good.” Said Penny. With a wide, seductive smile, she left to go to breakfast. At first James walked away with calm strides, but as soon as he was in the clear he practically sprinted over to Roy.

* * *

Thomas M. Watt

Author of “A New Kingdom”