The Book that Breaks All the Rules, Part 5: Commit to your Genre

Martin has an odd relationship to his genre. We begin with a raid north of the Wall where our rangers are killed by zombies, who are pretty clearly supernatural (with maybe a 1% chance that it’s not supernatural.) Much later, we get another zombie attack, this one more clearly supernatural. Finally, we end with dragon eggs hatching. But that’s only 3 out of a whopping 72 chapters. In the other 69 the drama is mostly socio-political. Occasionally magic beasts will come up in conversation, but they always seem to have the status of dubious legends. Every time someone mentions fairy folk or giants existing years ago, there’s another character to ridicule the whole idea.

So who is Martin’s ideal reader? Is he writing for those who prefers the realistic push and pull of historical fiction, or does he truly want to be the American Tolkien and fully embrace his fantasy setting? Is his biggest influence not Tolkien but, as he has intimated, the French author Maurice Druon, author of the “Accursed Kings” historical fiction series?

You’re supposed to establish a genre in the opening pages and then consistently deliver the familiar pleasures of that genre. You’re supposed to assure one type of reader that you will satisfy them and then pay off that promise.  That first scene breaks the rules.

Does he get away with it? Pretty much yes. I know that there are some readers who put the book aside when they realize that they’ve been falsely led into reading a socio-political book, saying, “Eh, not enough magic.” But for most readers, it’s actually kind of cool: Yes, he’ll give us some magic, but he’s also confident in his ability to make the intrigue just as interesting while we’re waiting, and we enjoy those 69 chapters just as much as the other 3. We get just enough genre thrills, but spend most of the book feeling like we’re maybe smart and sophisticated enough that we don’t need them.

But there’s definitely a tension: Martin sets up a situation in which zombies and dragons are on the very fringes of the narrative, literally and figuratively, but he also tells us that he comes to sing to us of ice and fire. Much is made of the fact that the zombies and dragons will play a bigger and bigger role in later books, even though they’re barely glimpsed here.

Yesterday, I proposed one reason Martin has been slow to turn out more books. Here’s another: Maybe he never really wanted to write about these magical creatures, and included them only to sell his fictionalized history to the fantasy crowd, but he’s set up a situation where he’ll have to write that stuff more and more, and he’s just not interested in doing that. Let HBO handle that stuff.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Establish the Worst Things That Could Happen

“Holes” uses a classic trick: it establishes the two worst things that could happen, then those things of course happen. First, after the two “usually”s I mentioned last time, we get an “Always”
  • But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
  • Always.
Then we’re told that there are no fences at the camp because anyone attempting to run away is guaranteed to die in the desert. Of course, before the book is over, Stanley will survive both getting swarmed by lizards and attempting to run away from camp.

This is an area where you can benefit from your reader’s ability to guess where you’re going based on other books they’ve read. Sachar could tease us in his narration and say, “Little did Stanley suspect that soon he would do just that,” but he doesn’t have to. He knows that we’ve read books before and we know that if it gets an “Always”, then we’re about to see an amazing exception. That “Always” is all the foreshadowing he needs.
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Best of 2017, #1: Lady Bird


What a wonderful film.  Our top two movies are so similar: Both were created by performers who weren’t known as writers or directors but both turned out to be geniuses in disguise.  It makes you wonder who else is sitting on hidden talents.  Some old rules this reminded me of:

Begin When the Problem Becomes Undeniable, End When It’s Resolved: What is the story of this movie? If I was describing it to someone, I would probably say “It’s the story of a girl’s senior year of high school,” so the most obvious structure would be to begin with an aerial shot of the kids entering school on the first day and end on another aerial shot of her flying off for college, but the movie is smarter than that.

This is a movie with several plotlines, but Gerwig knows she has to choose one storyline to predominate, begin the movie when that problem becomes undeniable, and end when it resolves. Gerwig probably could have structured the movie around Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend, or her attempts to lose her virginity, but she ultimately decided that the conflict with the mom was the emotional heart of the movie, so she begins a little bit before the school year (iirc) with the moment that relationship becomes open warfare, and then she actually keeps the story going a little bit into college to find the moment when that storyline resolves itself, because Lady Bird has to go away to get some perspective on their relationship.

The Trailer Scene: So let’s talk about the opening scene, because it’s a great example of a “Holy Crap” moment that’s necessary to make a trailer work. The movie is a low-key coming of age story, and those are notoriously hard to sell. The trailer does include the best moment in the movie, when Lady Bird asks her mom, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” and her mom gives her that wonderful look, but that’s not really a great trailer moment. Even if your movie is very realistic, it’s good to have one moment that strains that realism to the breaking point to put a moment of outrageousness in the trailer, and jumping out of the car while her mom is driving is a perfect example. It’s not so extreme that it would make the news, but it’s definitely nothing the characters will ever forget.

I know that for me, jumping out got a big laugh when I saw the trailer and made me want to see the movie. It assured me that this wouldn’t be that kind of movie (which is to say, the kind of movie Gerwig usually stars in), too low key to care about, or too cool for school. It assured me: This is going to be a comedy, and you’ll be allowed to laugh.

Reversible reversible behavior. But this is a realistic movie, and it’s going to also score points by undermining our traditional narrative expectations in favor of greater realism. One great little moment: Whenever a character, especially a teen character, insists on an alias, we also await the moment when they drop the façade and admit their real name, because that’s classic reversible behavior, and sure enough this movie delivers that moment when Lady Bird is at her first college party, but then it wonderfully undercuts that breakthrough. She admits her name, but then the boy asks her where she’s from and she panics and lies. One step forward, one step back. This is what we want out of realistic movies: clever subversion of tropes in a way that makes us think, “Finally a movie that’s willing to show how it really is!”
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Best of 2017, #3: I, Tonya

Two thoughts on this movie:
A new tool: The fake-out redemption scene. This movie has a scene in it that’s very similar to a scene in my play, and I think it works well in both places: Like so many stories that seek to redeem a terrible person, this movie features an even-worse parent. I’ve talked about this before with Kind Hearts and Coronets, Downhill Racer, “The Sopranos”, and Trainwreck: Our hero may be bad, but they come by it honestly, and at least they’re better than their terrible parent.

But these scenes can be just as unsatisfying onscreen as they are in real life. We want some human connection between parent and child. We want a breakthrough and maybe some redemption. But you also want to be true to your character, and if your parent is awful enough to justify terrible behavior, then they may be unredeemable. So you can cheat to sneak in such a scene: You can have the parent finally tell the child what they’ve always wanted to hear, and give the kid some emotional catharsis, but only because the parent is manipulating the child.

In the scene in which Tonya Harding’s mom finally tells her what she wants to hear, my first thought was “I don’t really buy this plot turn”, then I realized that Allison Janney was good enough to sell the scene if it were genuine, so if I wasn’t buying it, there was probably a good reason for that. Then I realized, “Hey, this is just like the scene I wrote!” It was a fake-out and I thought it worked well, putting a nice button on their relationship, even if it was fake.
Tricky tone: The big question with this movie is, “Should a movie with this much domestic violence be this fun?” Is it trivializing the violence? Turning it into entertainment? …Worst of all, does it treat this violence as no big deal because the victim is Tonya Harding?

But ultimately, I would say the movie answers all these questions satisfactorily and pulls off its tricky tone, and it all comes down to one moment: That first out-of-nowhere face-punch. Because of the movie’s fun, rock-fueled uptempo tone, I was totally unprepared for the domestic violence to begin, and it hit me in the face as well. I felt the shock, betrayal and fear that comes with that punch all the more because of the tone, and that’s what you want when you tell stories: to make the audience feel the same pain the hero is feeling.

After that punch, the uptempo and humorous tone continues, despite the violence getting worse, but the friction is maintained. The fun tone kept me thinking, “Surely the violence will end. There will be redemption. This will become a love story again.” And of course, that’s just what Tonya is thinking as she goes back to him over and over. The tricky tone keeps us in her head, keeping the violence continually shocking and painful, specifically because it violates the tone. It thought it was a very effective tool.
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Best of 2017, #5: The Florida Project

Despite the undeniable raw power of this movie, I was somewhat reluctant to have it on the list, because, as I’ve talked about in past years, the main thing I look for these days at the movies is humanity. Do these characters seem fully human to me? Have the writers found universal humanity in the hearts of their characters? For many of the most acclaimed films these days, the answer is no. 

And at first this seemed like another example. In this bleak look at the lives of a six year old girl and her prostitute mother living in an Orlando hotel room, I feared that the writers were looking at these characters too much from the outside: Look at these wretched lives, and despair!

My fear as I watched was that neither the creators nor the audience were fully inhabiting the movie, frozen out by our ice-hard hero.

But then she finally melts. Just as the movie has rolled the rock uphill for as long as possible, CPS shows up to (finally) take Moonee away from her terrible mom, and at first Moonee barely reacts, then she runs away to a neighboring hotel, finds her one friend, and bursts into some very-well-earned tears. Suddenly, after 100 frozen-out minutes, we’re allowed in, assured that yes, she’s human, heartbreakingly so, and it’s all worth it.
On another note, was I the only once who kept thinking of the documentary Queen of Versailles while watching this? Although one is fiction and the other non-fiction, they make a good pair, both about unloved kids being raised by crooks in the shadow of Disneyworld, with the only difference being that one family is filthy rich and the other is filthy poor.
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How to Manage Expectations (aka Tone): The Archive

This section got completely cut from the book at one point, then put back in at half its original length, so there’s lots of good stuff here that didn’t make it into the book...
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Difference Between Drama and Melodrama is “Would It Make the News?”

I saw a lot of bad indie movies back in the day, but surely one of the most annoying was Blue Car. The main storyline involved a girl having an affair with her teacher, but there was also a subplot –a subplot!- in which, if I remember correctly, her seven year old sister commits suicide.

This is a note I give all the time: It’s too much. I love a good ripe melodrama as much as the next man, but melodrama involves a certain over-the-top tone. Blue Car was played as a straight drama, but the events were beyond the limits imposed by that genre.

Here’s the difference: Would it make the news? Seven year old girls don’t often commit suicide. It’s a huge deal. There would be think pieces about it. But in this movie, it’s so unremarkable that it’s not even the main topic of the movie.

I’ve said before that Moonlight was a little too bleak for me, but it’s a good example of how far you can push drama without going into melodrama. A boy getting beaten up by one boy and then breaking a chair over the back of another boy is violent and shocking, especially if you know the real circumstances, but it wouldn’t make the news, so it’s drama, not melodrama.
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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your Genre is Your Taskmaster

This is possibly the number one mistake I see in the manuscripts I read.

You’re written forty pages of great relationship drama and you know that it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You’ve created deep and rich three-dimensional characters, you’ve imbued them with your own history and pain, and you’ve put them on a collision course, forcing them to deal with their issues and with each other.

But your manuscript begins with an action sequence, has intermittent action sequences throughout, and ends with blowing up an underground lair. Your genre, inescapably, is action, and that forty pages of relationship drama has no action, which means that it has to go, or be significantly transformed.

Your genre is your taskmaster. Action needs action every twenty pages or so. Comedy needs frequent laughs, etc. So what do you do with all that great relationship drama? If you don’t want to lose it, you have to find a way for it to serve the action. The relationship confrontations need to be inextricable from the life-and-death confrontations. The interpersonal breakthroughs need to result in plot breakthroughs. Clocks must always be ticking.

Great writing that violates your genre isn’t great writing. Everything must serve your genre. You either have to jettison a lot of the relationship drama, or you have to jettison the action elements. Good Will Hunting started out as an action script, until they realized that they were doing a better job with the backstory than the frontstory, so they just got rid of the frontstory. Nobody missed it.
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Best of 2016, #2: 20th Century Women

The Problem: None!

For those of you who haven’t seen it: Annette Benning plays a single mom in 1979 with two boarders in her rotting California home, trying to raise her teenage son. It’s a crime she didn’t get an Oscar nomination.  (And neither did Amy Adams!  All so that Meryl could get her 50th nomination??)

What I Loved About It: Everything! It was such a relief to get this bracing blast of real life after all the grim brutality offered up by so many of the other movies. It turns out that life is a pretty interesting topic. This movie felt like it could have been made by Eric Rohmer, which is about the highest compliment I know how to pay.

Rulebook Casefile:
  • Find Unique But Universal Details: I had never heard of the pass-out game they play (that almost kills the son), but it seemed so real to my experience of adolescence, so I readily accepted it.
  • Find the Internecine Conflicts: Looking back on punk, and looking at what it means in retrospect, it would be tempting to show them clashing with preppies all the time, but as an actual punk in 1979, you were far more likely to get caught up in clashes between art punks and hardcore punks. It is our internecine conflicts that dominate our waking hours, not our larger societal roles.
  • Impose a Dramatic Question: This movie’s great strength is that it’s a free-ranging slice of life, but you still have to impose a bit of structure in order to make it feel like a coherent story. In this movie, at around the 20 minutes mark, Annette Benning asks the two women in her son’s life to help raise him. Then, near the end, she tells them to cool it. That’s all the structure you need, and Mills hangs his whole sprawling loosey-goosey movie on that rickety frame, which works just fine.
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Best of 2016, #3: The Invitation

The Problem: None! Now that we’re in the top three, we’re down to movies that I unreservedly loved.

Warning: I know that not many of you saw this movie, and it’s best if you see it like I did, knowing next to nothing about it, so I would recommend that you read no further, go check it out, and then meet me back here. Unfortunately, I must include mild spoilers from this point on (albeit nothing you couldn’t guess from the trailer)

What I Liked About It: It’s a great movie about L.A. Like our last movie, it’s a great movie about self-destructive grief. It’s a great movie about how we all gaslight ourselves, especially in the age of Trump. We tell ourselves, “The world can’t possibly be this sinister. It’s not so bad. I must be crazy.” Then the bloodbath begins, and we ask, “Why didn’t I trust my terror?”

Rulebook Casefile: Establish the Nature of the Jeopardy. The Invitation is a fantastic thriller, but I hesitate to call it that. It has the structure of many great thrillers, where the real possibility persists for quite some time that everything might have a perfectly reasonable explanation (Think Rear Window). What makes this movie unique is how long it draws out that section of the movie. The sinister nature of the goings-on isn’t confirmed until the last possible moment, right at the beginning of Act Three.

So how do you draw things out that far? One way is to make every little line of dialogue or gesture seem ominous, because the filmmakers use lots of great tricks to put us deep inside the hero’s paranoid head. We jump because he jumps, even though we also keep our distance from him, doubting his sanity.

But the movie also uses a very simple trick. As our hero and heroine are on their way to this dinner party deep in the L.A. hills, they run over a coyote and mostly kill it. Once our hero realizes it can’t be saved, he casually puts it out of its misery with a mighty whack of a tire iron, then continues on his way as the credits roll. This is a way to establish that yes, there will be blood. Even as we doubt our hero’s paranoia later on, that disturbing moment of violence sets the tone. The first thing we saw was a killing, and we’re subconsciously expecting that this will once again become a killing movie. That sustains us during the long wait for the other shoe to drop.
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