How to write movies and books – 4/3/20

DSC02913

A subtle metaphor for the prison cell you are being held captive in if you don’t read this post.

Why do we watch movies and read fiction? What are we looking for?

There are endless resources for writing fiction. Many of them include the same essential elements – inciting incident, plot, character arc, theme, conflict, tension, etc. But the truth about what makes a great story runs much deeper than that.

We turn to stories for truths about the world we live in – spiritual, psychological, and societal truths. We are always looking to learn something, and that’s what a good story does for us.

The fundamental nature of “plot” is to give your hero a quest and throw obstacles in his path to prevent them from reaching their goal. I believe the next step is the most overlooked aspect of a powerful story.

The main character must learn something to complete their quest. That’s it. That’s the secret of a moving story. If you can do that, you are already taking care of character arc, theme, internal conflict, and character growth. The way to formulate that in a compelling way is what determines the strength of your story.

If you are a writer, start observing the obstacles in your own life. What character trait gets in the way of accomplishing your own goals? Even something as simple as procrastination provides a life lesson for us. Why do we procrastinate? When I find myself too overwhelmed to complete the task that will bring me closer to my goal, I ask myself why. Many times it’s a fear of something – the fear of failure, the fear of the unknown, the fear of wasting time and effort on an eventually failed pursuit.

Just like that, you have everything you need for a story. For example:

Joe is at the post office one day when he meets a beautiful girl who inexplicably decides to give him her number (inciting incident). He forgets to call her when his ex returns to his life (obstacle). When he does call her, she is much more reluctant to go out after learning that he’s been talking to his ex (obstacle). Joe decides to tell his ex that their relationship is over for good. He calls the girl again, tells her that he wants to see her and only her, and she accepts his idea for a date.

The story can go on from here with new obstacles and lessons to be learned. But every major event needed for a story is included above. What did Joe learn? That if he truly wants to create a new and loving relationship, he’s going to have to move on from past relationships (theme).

I’m not a great writer by any means, but I have spent years studying the story telling essentials. All that I’m trying to do with my new youtube channel is tell good stories. I guess that’s why I made this post – there’s so many formulaic stories out there, short films that are weighed down by editing techniques, and movies that are weighted and shackled by their own genre. I’m trying to approach “Mountain Cult” with a more liberal view. I want to craft stories that provide actual life lessons. At the end of the day, when we think of the movies that mean’t the most to us, I believe it’s because they taught us something about ourselves that continue to help us navigate through our own lives. I hope that in some way this post can help you create your own stories. There’s way too many pencil petes out there telling you what you can and cannot do with a story, and I don’t think we need any more of them.

Below is episode 1 of my webseries if you’d like to check it out and tell me how disappointed you are to discover you just took advice from a guy whose writing is amateur at best.

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.

Scene fun – Joe vs. zombies

Let’s craft two versions of the same scene, one better than the other. I’ll explain the difference afterward.

* * *

Joe came home to find the television eradically buzzing in the living room. He didn’t think much of it, so he simply turned it off before preparing himself lunch. He searched through the cubbard until he had two slices of white wonderbread and peanut butter, the crunchy kind.

He poured himself a glass of milk, then sat down. As he ate, he reflected on the days events. The zombie infestation was unprecedented, full-blown, and all-too-real. Joe always hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. The sound of rapid footsteps prompted Joe to turn and look – a zombie was headed right for him! Before Joe got another bite of his sandwich, the zombie got a bite of him – and Joe was infected.

* * *

Ok, that’s scene 1. Let’s try that again, and see how some simple changes can make the scene more effective.

* * *

Joe slammed the front door the second he set foot inside, blunt axe in hand. Right when he did there was a grumble. Like a dog. Like a rabid dog…

“Hello?” said Joe.

He heard a slow creaking, followed by a sharp snap. Like someone tiptoeing over broken glass.

Joe clenched his fists. He crept through his kitchen. Could one of those things be here? He couldn’t even bear the thought of it. The entire day he’d been running. And he’d witnessed what those monsters did when they got their hands on uninfected humans.

As he walked through the hallway he heard another grunt. It sounded like it came from Julia’s room – his daughter.

“No, Julia!”

Joe quit tip-toeing and broke into a sprint. He kicked her door open just as he heard a window shatter. He entered in to find a parent’s worst nightmare – Julia’s bones were left in a heap of blood in tissue, like left-over ribs. Her head was partly detached, from the gaping hole in her throat, and lying on an ear.

Joe turned her head and stared into her baby blue eyes. He pet back her angelic hair with a shaking hand. “My girl,” he whispered. “My girl.”

There was a creak in her closet. Joe picked up the axe, gulped, then stood up.

* * *

Okay, let’s go over the major differences.

1 – Tone. There is no sense of ‘impending doom’ in the first scene, whereas in the second there is. Style is more important than sounding smart.

2 – Peanut butter and jelly? Who gives a shit. What kind of bread and the crunchy/smooth adds absolutely nothing to the scene. It doesn’t even give the reader a better idea of Joe’s character, so it needs to be trimmed. “Joe made a peanut butter jelly sandwich and ate while he reflected…” Is how it should have read. Take notice – every scene has a focus. In this scene, the focus SHOULD have been the question of whether a zombie was inside his place. PB & J does not strengthen this question in any way. Notice the blunt axe in the second scene does add value (it increases the stakes, as it gives us yet another reason to fear for Joe’s safety.

3 – By far the biggest problem is the late introduction of the zombie. Do you notice how little it mattered when Joe got attacked? Why is that? It was a total surprise. Was it the weak description?

Nah dawg. I could have written the best, most intricate zombie-attack-moves and it wouldn’t have mattered (think about how much better the second version was – and you didn’t even SEE the zombie).

This scene suffered because there was no suspense. You have to prepare your reader for what is to come – you have to tell them (indirectly) what is to come. The moment your protagonists suspects something is up, so will your reader. And guess what? Even if there was no zombie, just a stray cat running through, you would have paid more attention from sentence to sentence. Just like potential girlfriends/boyfriends, readers need something to worry about to keep them interested – and if you go so much as a page without giving it to them, you will lose them for good.

– Thomas M. Watt is a script analyst and author of A New Kingdom