Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have Your Hero Take Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

Audiences want heroes to change, especially at the end, but we also have our bullshit detectors going at all times. We know that we ourselves have failed to fix our own problems, no matter how hard we’ve tried, so we know that any change the hero makes will have to be hard-earned and limited to be believable.

In some movies, like Groundhog Day, the hero is totally transformed into a different person in the end …but only after being trapped in the same day for a very long time (In the screenwriter’s mind, it was more than 10,000 days, though the final film doesn’t seem to go that far.)

But in more realistic movies like Lady Bird, characters don’t get that much chance for transformation. Like us, they can only change so much. In return for our movie ticket, we’re going to demand some change, but we’re going to call bullshit if we get too much.

In any movie where a character refuses to be called by their real name, there’s a natural ticking clock counting down to when she “accepts herself” and acknowledges the name. (Of course, the concept of “real names” has been challenged quite a bit in the two years since this movie came out, but let’s not get into that) This movie does deliver the pay-off we expect, but it immediately undercuts that. She’s at a party at her new college in New York City and a cute guy asks her her name:

  • COLLEGE BOY: What’s your name?
  • LADY BIRD (considering): Christine. My name is Christine.
  • COLLEGE BOY: I’m David.
  • They shake hands.
  • DAVID: You shake.
  • CHRISTINE: I shake.
  • DAVID: Where are you from?
  • CHRISTINE: Sacramento.
  • DAVID: Sorry, where?
  • The music was too loud, he hadn’t heard her. Second try:
  • CHRISTINE: San Francisco.
  • DAVID: Cool! San Francisco is a great city.

So she actually takes two steps forward, admitting to her name and her city, but then she takes one step back, abjuring the city when she gets a second chance. We believe in her hard-won self-acceptance, because we see that it’s got limits.

She’s not Bill Murray, she hasn’t totally transformed, she’s changed just enough to gratify our investment in her journey, and it’s so much more gratifying because it’s so small and believable. We’re still rooting for her to one day admit to a boy that she’s from Sacramento, but we’d rather she be real than right in this scene.
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Rulebook Casefile: How to Write a Comedy Without Jokes

In her DVD commentary, “Lady Bird” writer/director Greta Gerwig says

  • “One thing that was really important to me is that none of the actors ever played the jokes as jokes, or the things that I thought would be funny, that they played them totally sincerely, and I cast actors who are allergic to anything that doesn’t feel true, and I remember talking to Saoirse early in the rehearsal process and she said, “Oh, I’m--I’ve never done a comedy” and I was like, ‘Don’t think of it as a comedy. Play it 100% real and it’ll be funny.’ And she did, and it is because the reason, I remember the first time I heard her read it, I was like, ‘It’s so much funnier because you’re believing it, 100%.’”

When I was trying to identify the moment of humanity in the first scene, I had a hard time identifying why I liked the heroine so much. She made me laugh, but I wasn’t sure how: Sometimes we like a character because they’re “laugh with” funny, and sometimes because they’re “laugh at” funny. Only certain types of “laugh at” moments make us bond with a character—the character has to unintentionally attract our laughter in ways we empathize with, often when a character is poignantly but humorously vain.

Lady Bird’s first line is slightly vainglorious: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” We identify with the dissatisfaction, ambition, and self-consciousness inherent in that line, but we don’t really laugh with or at her yet. In the next scene, she says “I wish I could live through something,” which is also lightly vainglorious and poignant.

She then gets her closest thing to an intentional joke, but it’s still more laugh-at then laugh-with. Her mother is reminding her why they spend money they don’t have to send her to Catholic school:

  • MARION: Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High, is that what you want? You’re telling me that you want to see someone knifed right in front of you?
  • LADY BIRD: He barely saw that.

As they used to say in the Borscht Belt: “These are the jokes, folks!” It’s a somewhat witty retort, but we’re not sure Lady Bird even knows that. Gerwig is having the actors play for emotion and throw their jokes away, literally. We laugh, sort of with, sort of at, but Lady Bird would be surprised either way if she could hear us out in the theater. The character and actress are just feeling the emotion and reacting honestly, and we find it funny, but that’s our business, not theirs.

This movie is a masterclass in how to write a comedy without jokes. “Cheers” writer Ken Levine wrote a great blog post on this many years ago. It’s a harder way to write comedy, but it can be the most satisfying kind for an audience, and the more emotionally fulfilling, because the actors get to be totally in it, facing inward instead outward.
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Rulebook Casefile: The Writer Gives the Villain Her Humanity in “Lady Bird”

One thing made me a bit uneasy about “Lady Bird” as I watched it. Kyle (Timothy Chalamet) is the movie’s caddish villain, but we first meet him reading “A People’s History of the United States” and we know he’s getting his hooks into the heroine when she reads it too. Later, when she accuses him of tricking her into sex, he attempts to change the subject by saying, “Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since the invasion in Iraq started?” (And Lady Bird wisely says “SHUT UP. Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.”)

But I watched and thought “Hey, I was the kid who loved that book, and I opposed the previous Iraq war when I was in high school …Am I the bad guy here?” But I could tell the movie wasn’t really saying that, so I wasn’t really put off.

Nevertheless, I was gratified when, in the DVD documentary, Greta Gerwig recounts a conversation she had with Chalamet, after she made him read a lot of political stuff to prepare for the role:

  • “And then he came back and he said, ‘You love this stuff!’ And then we had this whole joke, he was like, ‘The funny thing is that everyone will think that you’re Lady Bird, but actually, you’re Kyle,’ and I was like, ‘It’s true!’ Like when he says that thing about putting cell phones in our brains, I’ve definitely said things like that.”

It’s always good to raid your own life for specific details and gift them to your characters to make them come alive. Obviously, in an autobiographical coming of age story, Gerwig is going to give most of her personal details to her heroine, but she saves some for the other characters as well, even the villain—especially the villain, who is the easiest character to lose the humanity of.

I’ve talked before about how, in the opinion of actor Ronny Cox, all four men in “Deliverance” were aspects of novelist/screenwriter James Dickey. Every character needs humanity if they’re going to come alive, and there’s no better source of humanity than yourself. Thankfully, you contain multitudes. There are many people within you, so you can spread your humanity around.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: How People Really Talk

So I assume we’re all enjoying the “Operation: Varsity Blues” scandal, where the rich and famous got arrested for various illegal schemes to get their kids into universities (hiring imposters to take their kids’ SATs, faking learning disabilities to get more time on the SAT, photoshopping their heads onto athletes to get recruited, outright bribery, etc.)

The latest development is that Vice has transcribed some of the tapes, which are delightful, but they’re also really instructive for writing dialogue. In my own writing, I’ve often gotten pushback for how fragmentary my dialogue is, but I always defend it by saying that the way we really talk. Well, these strictly-faithful transitions back me up nicely. Here’s one example:

  • SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I-- he didn’t-- [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time-- but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the-- apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what-- the way we want to keep it.

Another conversation:

  • B. ISACKSON: Well, I, I-- But if-- but they, they --
  • CW-1: Yes.
  • B. ISACKSON: --went the meat and potatoes of it, which a-- which a guy would love to have is, it’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.

And another:

  • CAPLAN: Done. The other stuff (laughing)--
  • CW-1: That will be up to you guys, it doesn’t matter to me.
  • CAPLAN: Yeah, I, I hear ya. It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished. So I, I just—
  • CW-1: It’s never happened before in twenty-some-odd years. The only way anything can happen is if she--
  • CAPLAN: Someone talks--
  • CW-1: Yeah, if she tells somebody.

People don’t finish their sentences, they lose their train of thought, they rephrase things on the fly, they interrupt each other. These are all highly-educated successful people and every single one talks this way.

So should you write this way? As I said, producers and other note-givers thought I was doing it too much. It was realistic, but maybe too much so. If your characters are too articulate, injecting some of this realism into your dialogue will make it come alive and feel refreshingly real, but maybe don’t take it as far as I did. The goal in writing is to crate a sense of the real, but once you’ve done that you can make everyone a little more articulate than they would actually be.

Edited to Add: Here was a comment of mine that I thought should be elevated to the main piece: Looking at the above transcript, you probably wouldn't want to write a sentence exactly like “and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities.” That's realistic in an annoying way.

But you might well want to write something like the next sentence: “Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.” That's realistic in a more appealing way. Not finishing that sentence seems more meaningful than the stumbles in the previous sentence.
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Pet Peeve: Please Don’t Give Kids a “Word of the Day” Calendar

One last nitpick on “A Wrinkle in Time”:
For the most part the book does a good job with vocabulary. L’Engle mostly uses words that 8-12 year olds would know, with some more obscure words sprinkled in that they’ll be able to pick up from context (wraithlike, uncanny), and that’s just how kids like it. And Meg talks believably like a 12 year old.

As I said when I discussed the movie, Charles Wallace is trickier. We’re told that he didn’t speak at all until he was four, but he’s now five and he’s caught up quickly, talking in a very advanced way for his age. This wasn’t believable at all onscreen, but is it believable on the page? Eh, close enough. It feels a little convenient for L’Engle to have a five-year-old co-hero who isn’t limited to how a five-year-old would actually talk, but we go along with it.

But there’s one thing L’Engle does that’s a major pet peeve of mine. If she was the only one who did it, it would be fine, but a huge percentage of kids’ books do the same cheat: You’re writing a young hero, and you want to put a word in his mouth, but the character suddenly says to you, “Nope, I wouldn’t know that word at my age.” It’s admirable to listen to your characters when they refuse to do what you want them to, but L’Engle then solves the problem in an all-too-common way: having the character mention that he just learned the word:

  • “Let’s be exclusive,” Charles Wallace said. “That’s my new word for the day. Impressive, isn’t it?”

Now that I’ve pointed this out to you, you will see it all the damn time. And I never buy it. That’s not the way we use vocabulary. By the time we feel comfortable enough with a word to use it in conversation, we’ve forgotten when and where we learned it and just feel like we’ve always known it. L’Engle got away with it in 1962, but don’t try to get away with this in 2019! We see what you’re trying to get away with.
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New Video: Irony

Remember how shocked you were when I put out a new podcast episode, after more than a year away?  Well get ready to be flabbergasted, because here’s a new video after more than two years!  When I launched my book in late 2016, I had an ambitious plan that I would have a new video every other week from then on and a podcast episode on all the off weeks.  Ha!  Turns out that videos are a lot of work.  But I'm very happy with the four I’ve made and I’ve wanted to do a new one on irony for a while.  And I’m mostly talking about a movie we haven’t already discussed to death on the blog!  Let me know what you think, please.

(I’ve also replaced the Moment of Humanity video with a cleaner version, since kids like the videos.  No more 40 Year Old Virgin opening shot!)
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Capture the Logic of Childhood

The major question that hangs over “The God of Small Things”, the question that adult-Rahel seems to be trying to answer for herself, is why Sophie Mol and Velutha had to die, all those years earlier. One of the reasons is that seven year olds don’t make good decisions. The twins’ bad decisions contribute to Sophie’s accidental drowning, and then they are forced to accuse Velutha, who is beaten to death by the police. Now two people are dead, but the twins never really recover either, at least not by age 31.

In order to tell this story, Roy must intimately capture the faulty logic of seven year olds, and I can say, as the father of a seven year old daughter, and a former seven year old myself, that she does a great job.

We jump around a lot at first, but the first real scene we get is Sophie’s funeral (while Velutha is dying in police custody, but we don’t know that, and young Rahel only kind of knows it). Inside Rahel’s head, Roy captures her thoughts and musings:

  • She noticed that Sophie Mol was awake for her funeral. She showed Rahel Two Things.
  • Thing One was the newly painted high dome of the yellow church that Rahel hadn’t ever looked at from the inside. It was painted blue like the sky, with drifting clouds and tiny whizzing jet planes with white trails that crisscrossed in the clouds. It’s true (and must be said) that it would have been easier to notice these things lying in a coffin looking up than standing in the pews, hemmed in by sad hips and hymnbooks.
  • Rahel thought of the someone who had taken the trouble to go up there with cans of paint, white for the clouds, blue for the sky, silver for the jets, and brushes, and thinner. She imagined him up there, someone like Velutha, barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky.
  • She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret
  • [later:]
  • When they lowered Sophie Mol’s coffin into the ground in the little cemetery behind the church, Rahel knew that she still wasn’t dead.
  • [later:]
  • Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can’t hear screams through earth and stone.
  • Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe.
  • Her funeral killed her.

Young Rahel imagines that someone like Velutha might have painting the ceiling, and then imagines him falling to his death, which shows her subconscious struggling with her vague realization of Velutha’s actual mortal peril. We see her convince herself that Sophie is killed by the funeral, not the drowning, which absolves Rahel of her guilt.

But here’s the great thing about this passage: It’s almost funny. The situation could not be more serious, but Roy’s voice (which is only slightly removed from Rahel’s voice, see below*) is so true-to-life that we can’t help but smile. Morbid seven year olds are amusing, in a Wednesday Addams sort of way.

We nervously laugh at this because it’s uncomfortably intimate. We remember what it was like to look at the world through young eyes, to let our imaginations run away with us, not in a “Reading Rainbow” sort of way, but in strange, dark ways. We never thought a book would remind us of those forgotten thoughts, retrace the path of that twisted logic. People cite this as their favorite book not because they love its dark subject matter, but because they feel Roy has been in their heads, and they find that strange intimacy intoxicating.

As with our last book, it’s great to give your hero unique eyes. They should look at the world and see things only they would see. From the first page, even as an adult, Rahel has oddly overimaginative eyes. She looks at nature and sees human emotions where none exist. Nature’s clashes become petulant human squabbles. We then go back to when she was a kid and she cannot look at a corpse without bringing it to life: Sophie’s still alive, so that means she’s looking up at the ceiling, I wonder what she sees… Oh, she sees the newly painted ceiling… I wonder who painted it? Probably someone like Velutha? What if he fell? She can’t deal with the body in the coffin, but she’s happy to create one on the ground. And of course, one corpse will lead to the other in real life, but neither she nor we understand that at this point. This book rewards rereading!

* As I say above, this is all a great example of subjective 3rd person narration, which is one of the hardest ways to write. In the above paragraphs, despite the 3rd-person pronouns, we’re obviously entirely inside Rahel’s head, seeing only what she’s seeing, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling. Roy will later take advantage of being in 3rd to show us scenes that Rahel doesn’t see …but crucially, they’re all scenes (like Estha’s molestation) that Rahel hears about or intuits later. They still fit under the umbrella of things grown-up-Rahel might put together to try to make sense of in modern day.
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Best of 2017 Introduction, and Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hi guys! So it was a pretty good year for movies. Unlike previous years, where my list had lots of idiosyncratic choices, my list is mostly Oscar nominees this year. I don’t know if this means that I’m changing or the Oscars are, but I suspect it’s the latter. My top two probably wouldn’t have been nominees in previous years.

As usual, I’ll mention the movies I haven’t seen first: The Darkest HourIt, Atomic Blonde, Logan Lucky, MotherDownsizing, and others I’m not thinking of.

How we’re going to do it this year is first we’re going to talk about four movies that didn’t make the list (one today, three tomorrow), then I’ll talk about five runners-up (for three days), then I’ll do my top five (with maybe a couple of days on #1). So let’s start with:
Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Frances McDormand’s fierce and funny performance, but boy oh boy did it fall apart. Here are three problems:

Moral murkiness: People have been saying that this is a prescient “MeToo” movie, but is it? Going in, I only knew that this was a movie about a righteous mother who was upset that the police had made no arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter. Based on that, I assumed that this was going to be the case where everybody knew a rich man’s son did it, but the cops wouldn’t arrest him for political reasons. Instead it was a very different movie, where it quickly became clear that a good cop had really exhausted every angle of the case and just came up short.

This is in some ways a braver choice, but it means that the movie actually feels more emblematic of the MeToo backlash: A woman is so upset about a rape that (according to one conversation in the movie) she wants to throw civil rights and due process out the window and now she’s lashing out at her own allies and hurting her own cause! Not surprisingly, this is a movie written by a man.

Not the way the world works: There’s nothing inherently wrong with wading into morally murky territory like that, but it’s a tricky line to walk, and this movie drunkenly veers all over it. McDormand’s character starts off with the notion that this police department is too scared to make arrests, but soon she’s taking advantage of that to a ludicrous degree. The first hint is when she viciously hurts the dentist and the police let her go, but then she firebombs the police station and the cops don’t care! (A cop later confirms that they knew she did it, as of course they would.)  That’s not the way the world works. Not to mention that one of the cops engages in an assault so egregious that it’s crazy he doesn’t get arrested, even in a corrupt town. It’s ludicrously over the top.

The Sorkin Stammer: But this is what I most dislike about the movie. The movie is in some ways critical of McDormand’s self-righteousness, but at other times it indulges it to an annoying degree, pitting her against stammering straw men in a way that’s supposed to make us stand up and cheer but just made me roll my eyes. Nothing is worse that her denunciation of the priest, who just sits there sputtering, letting her score all the points. Here’s the thing about priests: they love to be denounced. That’s their comfort zone. They’ve trained their whole lives for that.  I didn’t buy it.  Always avoid the Sorkin stammer.

Tomorrow: Three acclaimed sci-fi movies
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How to Craft Dialogue: The Archive

So, funny story: I go to archive my “How to Write Dialogue” series and discover that it isn’t in the sidebar, which seems weird.  So then I search for it.  It turns out that it doesn’t exist.  Because I never wrote one.  The other six sections of the checklist were based on series I wrote, but I apparently just cobbled together the Dialogue section of the checklist from “Storyteller’s Rulebook” posts I’d written.  So I decide that it’s high time this was in the sidebar, so I make a list of all the posts with a tag that says Dialogue, and I realize that I haven’t been doing this with the other categories, because it’s a ton of work, because I’ve written hundreds of “Storyteller’s Rulebook” posts.  Nevertheless, here you go: I never wrote this series so you get more than you could have asked for:
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Hate Therapists

One of the best scripts I read had one glaring flaw: the hero’s best friend was a therapist, and diagnosed his problems with insight. Audiences hate therapists. They do our job for us. It always feels like the writer is inserting himself or herself into the story to tell us what's really going on psychologically. We want to be the ones who figure out the subtext.

Everybody loves Psycho, but everybody hates the last scene, where the therapist arrives and explains what it all really means.

I recommended to that writer to have the friend just be a normal schlub, giving amateur advice filtered through his own needs, prejudices, and flaws.

I told you that some of these would be short!
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