Writing and Erasing then Rewriting and Burning

I had an eventful day yesterday. I worked out some major issues with Episode 5 as well as filmed material for a new YouTube video. I can’t understate how enjoyable it is to be working with a camera again and having something to edit. I’ve found a balance between doing video editing and editing the screenplay. It’s not hard to guess which one I like more.

I’ve taken my 27 page short and condensed it down to 21. I’ve had to significantly limit the amount of lines a few of the minor characters have. I’ve come to believe giving them too much on-screen time adds a whole lot more to their personalities than it does to the question that drives the story. I also think Quentin Tarantino writes this way (and does just fine).

It is so easy to see the ingredients that make up a good plot, yet a challenge to implement them. You must constantly barrage your protagonist with obstacles then look within yourself to figure out how they might overcome them. The lessons they learn become the theme. The training the protagonist does in act 2 should pay off in act 3.

Two new tools I am determined to use in this episode are:

  1. Hermeneutics
  2. Moral uncertainty

Hermeneutics deals with the interpretation of information. The term came to exist in order to explain how different religious sects came to understand the same biblical text. I featured a post on this subject a while ago that highlighted a video discussion about how Christopher Nolan uses it in his features. When done right, Hermeneutics has a profound effect on viewers. The information does not change, but the protagonist’s understanding of it does. I believe the typical description of a solid mid-point for a story fits this definition. Here’s an example of Hermeneutics in action:

  1. You receive $20 from your grandma as a Birthday gift.
  2. You learn your Grandma is broke and doesn’t have enough money to cover her own electricity bill.

The action, amount, and gesture has not changed. New information, however, has changed your response to the money from excitement to grief.

The second tool on my list is moral uncertainty. I’ve been trying to place my protagonist in situations where he must choose between 2 not so great options. A couple examples of this would be:

  1. Confessing to a widow you had could have saved her spouses life.
  2. Confronting an enemy whose daughter is in a nearby room.

I feel that using these emotional triggers will help to draw the viewer in. I am eager to move away from the basic methods of conflict, time constraints, and variable successes from effort. I am also trying to push the theme and character arc more into my subconscious. The protagonist’s reaction to the story as it occurs should change him over time. As long as I can end with a different set of values then I begin with, I anticipate a character arc will be there.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m hoping to complete my next YouTube upload today or tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.

Individual vs Group

Microcosm vs Macrocosm. Small pond vs the sea.

Before we begin our stories we imagine the message we want to convey. All too often we become wrapped up in a plot that is beyond our level of expertise. It doesn’t matter what your main character’s daily life consist of. If the experience is not authentic to your own, you will have readers and viewers that immediately dismiss the reality you’ve tried to reproduce. You can do all the research you want but authenticity cannot be duplicated. I want you to think about an experience/job/cultural perspective that is unique to yourself. I’m sure there are many secrets about that experience that those on the outside will not be able to find in any book no matter how hard they look. You can reproduce the jargon, but even that has its own intricacies.

I don’t mean to suggest you should abandon research on the story you would like to tell. For some this may be the primary motive of the project in the first place – to learn more about a subject that highly interests you. I am sure this was a major factor in Dan Brown’s novels. Then again, his wife was a well-educated art historian.

The significance of the title here is that thinking on smaller terms can enable you to convey the message you would like to get across while working within the resources available to you. Television and movie productions that deal with real life stories have a tremendous budget behind them. When Stanly Kubrick aimed to write a film about Napolean, he had an entire team assemble so much research that he could figure out what Napolean was doing during any given day of his life.

Let’s pretend you’re currently preoccupied with the covid-19 pandemic and its response. The message you would like to express is that illness strikes those who approach it with blatant dismissiveness.

On a macro level, this project would require you to consider the roles of politicians, celebrities, foreign governments, and statistics regarding the most adversely effected populations. You can find a lot of information online, but along your journey you realize you need one of your main characters to be a politician, another one is a reporter in a foreign nation, and another is a dementia patient/family member confined to a nursing home. You sit in front of your laptop and cannot even write a sentence because you are not sure how the regular life of a high-profile politician would even begin.

But let’s take these same power dynamics and apply it on a smaller scale. Your main character is a middle-aged female who lives in the suburbs (something relatable for you, the writer). They begin with the assumption that the covid-19 illness is not as bad as its made out to be. The main character’s husband, however, is deathly afraid and paranoid about getting the virus. He is a clean freak.

So we have our relatable characters who are easy to write and flesh out. You know who else could fit a character that has a lot of power and influence on this small scale? The media. That’s right – the newspaper, the online forums, the cable news network. You don’t need to dive inside their personal lives to be affected by their influence. So we make the regular news headlines and their arc a significant portion of the story.

Who else holds power? Maybe someone the main character looks up to. It could be a secret crush on a local small business owner who refuses to comply with the government shutdown. Maybe we watch his character change as he sees his customers become affected by the virus. Or maybe he doesn’t change, but the main character’s opinion of him and his reckless abandonment does.

So now we have 2 power influences that add to our story and reinforce/reflect its overall message. Perhaps the 3rd major character is based on our hero’s private ambition and subplot. The job they loved that they are prevented from returning to, or the fetus she carries inside her that is approaching delivery.

As a low budget filmmaker, I cannot emphasize enough about the importance of knowing your resources. I firmly believe the time you have each day for writing should be 90-95% devoted to crafting a compelling story. That is hard enough. The irony of doing all the research necessary to craft a story on a large scale is that it can only be as compelling as the story itself. Nobody who reads fiction is looking to read a manual. As a filmmaker it would be lovely to write scenes that include limousines, press conferences, and a large gallery of extras. The reality is I do not have the funding to make those scenes appear realistic. Rather than crafting a story that looks ridiculous when a green screen inevitably comes into play, I’d much rather write to the resources I have at my disposal.

Hope this helps in some way or another. Enjoy your morning and may you find your peace.

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 flickedĀ  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 letĀ  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.