Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective, Part II

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Last year I recommended two Youtube channels that examine story through the lens of a different genre–video games and movies.

Today I have another recommendation: Lessons from the Screenplay.

This channel takes a writerly bent on movie analysis by examining the screenplay directly. I’ve been impressed by and learned something from each video I’ve watched–I’m not caught up with the backlog yet, and I’m skipping some videos to avoid spoilers for movies I’m interested in seeing but haven’t.

Anything, though, that gets me thinking about the guts and bones of story construction is something I want to pass around for everyone to share.

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: The Line That Changes Everything

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(Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but for some of you, this is probably very old news.)

When I was in college, I took a creative writing seminar. The format was one three-hour class a week, and the dozen or so students in it wrote a short story for each session, printed copies for everyone, and passed them around to be read before the next session.

So every week, we produced a new story and got feedback on the previous one.

One of my classmates wrote this zany little plot about a guy who was paid to guard a billboard, one of the big ones you see on the highway. I don’t remember why–I think it was something controversial that had been vandalized previously so the organization hired him to guard it. In a way, the premise seemed preposterous, especially when the unmarked black helicopters showed up, but the tone of the piece was serious, very matter-of-fact. Overall, we all (professor included) considered it to be a strong story.

For our final assignment/exam, the last week of class, we were told to revise one of our previous stories instead of writing a new one, based on the feedback we’d received.

My classmate chose that particular story to revise and managed to make it worse, according to the professor, by adding one line of dialogue addressed to the main character, Mr. Billboard Bodyguard:

“You’re paranoid.”

I didn’t catch that, when I read the new version and put together my critique. I was woefully inexperienced at picking apart stories to see what made them tick, and as soon as the professor launched into what I can only describe as a diatribe, a light bulb burst in my brain. It can only take one line to ruin a story.

Having a character question the mental stability of the protagonist put the entire narrative in a different light, when the author clearly hadn’t meant it to. The unbelievable plot we were originally forced to accept by the serious tone of the piece, reporting everything as if it were fact, came completely unraveled by the suggestion of paranoia. The narrator became unreliable, so nothing could be viewed as real, which altered the fundamental intention of the story.

I hadn’t thought about this in years, and then, I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which, on the whole, I thought was a decent movie. But I only saw it a few weeks ago–my husband and I have embarked on a project to watch all the MCU films in order, because I’d only seen a few, and out-of-order at that, so some of them made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. When it came out, I did hear vague rumblings on the Internet about the movie’s treatment of Black Widow, but since I wanted to avoid spoiler territory, I didn’t know what, specifically, the issue was.

Comparing her forced sterilization to Bruce Banner’s Hulkitude, calling herself a monster? For shame, Joss Whedon (both director and screenwriter). For shame.

I see what the intention was, and I don’t entirely disagree with it. BW was trying to connect with Banner by revealing an aspect of herself, her body, that caused her emotional pain, that was outside of her control. On those levels, presented with that reasoning, there are parallels between her and the Hulk. It could have worked.

But simplifying all of that into a single line: “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

Directly equating an inability to have children with being a monster? Not cool, Joss Whedon. I see now why you lost some of that feminist street cred you were famous for (though arguably didn’t always deserve, even before this.)

Now, what that line did to her character doesn’t undermine the entire movie the way the line about paranoia did my classmate’s short story, but I hope my point comes through. These types of game-changers should be used sparingly and intentionally. If you want to throw the story on its head with a twist, go for it, but do it on purpose!

Because when something slips by you like that, it could be the line that ruins everything.

10 Dialogue Prompts, Movie Edition: Airplane!

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I’m a sucker for a good movie line, and the other day at work, I tossed out “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue” when things were going very, very wrong.

A handful of coworkers busted their guts laughing, while the rest looked at me funny. Turns out, not everyone’s seen Airplane!

But it gave me the idea to set out some of my favorite lines from the movie as dialogue prompts, because oh, the places they could go.

  1. “It takes so many things to make love last. But most of all, it takes respect, and I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”
  2. “It’s a damn good thing you don’t know how much he hates your guts.”
  3. “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.”
  4. “Surely you can’t be serious.”
  5. “You can tell me. I’m a doctor.”
  6. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
  7. “But what’s most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic.”
  8. “I can’t tell you that. It’s classified.”
  9. “No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”
  10. “What are you doing here? You can’t fly this plane!”

Have fun with them, and keep an ear open for good prompts when you’re watching your favorite movies!

This Week, I Read… (#17)

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#38 – The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

  • Read: 4/18/16 – 4/23/16
  • Provenance: Library (another first edition!)
  • Challenge: BookRiot Read Harder 2016
  • Task: Read a book then watch the movie, debate which is better
  • Rating: 5/5 stars (book); 3/5 stars (movie)

Yeah, the book is better. Not that the movie doesn’t have its charms, but…

Okay. First, I cannot recommend this book enough. If you love fairy tales, you need to read this. If you love beautiful language and inventive, often surprising metaphor, you need to read this. If you love stories that take common tropes and pull them apart to piece them back together in beguiling ways, you need to read this.

But you don’t necessarily need to watch the movie.

I was pleased to see in the opening credits that Beagle adapted the novel for the screen himself, so I knew the story and the dialogue would stay true, and it did, for the most part. What was missing from the movie was that incredible turn of phrase Beagle put to use in describing things, like the introduction of the Red Bull:

He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under an old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars.

Now, the movie has its gorgeous moments, but how can an artist really capture those words in an image? I liked the depiction of the Bull in the film, especially how he had pig-like aspects in addition to his bullishness, since in many ways the Bull is a representation of King Haggard’s greed. But no matter how good it was, it couldn’t convey the extra layers of meaning, of association that the text can with the power of simile and metaphor.

And about the film. Really, it’s a victim of its time. The art style remains beautiful, but boy howdy is the animation dated. And the music. I could have done without the cheesy ’80s rock ballads on the soundtrack. Honestly, I don’t see why Lady Amalthea needed a song, either. Prince Lir sings to her in the book, so that was fine (and it helps that Jeff Bridges can sing) but the rest of it I felt detracted from the quality of the film.

Caveat: Maybe if I had seen this first as a child, I wouldn’t mind so much. I adore Ladyhawke, for example, and the exact same criticism can be leveled at its cheesy ’80s soundtrack, but I love it anyway, because when I first saw it…well, it was still the ’80s! So because The Last Unicorn was not part of my childhood fantasy-movie canon, I may be more critical of its flaws than I am of say, Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal.

Another bone I have to pick with the movie was the voice acting. It’s got some stellar performances (Christopher Lee, of course, I don’t think he ever gave a less-than-stellar performance in anything; Angela Lansbury and Rene Auberjonois both made the most out of their bit parts) alongside some incredibly flat ones, one of which was, sadly, Alan Arkin as Schmendrick. He sounded as out-of-place in The Last Unicorn as, as…well, as Matthew Broderick in Ladyhawke. And he’s a principal character, so that got old, quick.

The last bone worth picking is perhaps the hardest to forgive. I know things need to get cut from books to make the movies work, but the removal of the entire Hagsgate curse storyline? Really? That takes all the punch out of the ending and eviscerates Prince Lir’s character arc. I was disappointed.

So, in the end, read the book, but maybe skip the movie. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as good.