Storyteller’s Rulebook: Everybody on TV Is Bad at Their Job (Except On “Law and Order”)

Back in the day, “Law and Order” would try to compete for Emmys, but it would never do as well as its rival, “NYPD Blue”. It was understood that “Law and Order” was the more frivolous show, because it was strictly about the cases, whereas “NYPD Blue” was a true drama, because it was equally about the case of the week and the lives of the detectives at home.

One of the reasons that seemed more artistic was subtext: If we were following both a home drama and a work drama, they could complicate and inform each other, and each one would be packed with subtext because we knew about the other. When they talked about the case we would see that they were really talking about their homelife drama, and vice versa. “Law and Order” couldn’t work on multiple levels like that.

But I preferred “Law and Order”. I always thought that “NYPD Blue” should maybe have a different name: “Shitty Cops”

If, week after week, your policework is affected by your homelife, you’re a shitty cop. And if your policework is constantly emotionally affecting your homelife, you’re a shitty spouse. Give me the cops of “Law and Order”, who pass the basic competency bar of leaving their homelife at home.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love lots of shows wherein home and work dramas get intermingled. As long as the show acknowledges that this is a serious failing on the hero’s part.

Dre on “Black-ish” is played by a former “Law and Order” detective, but he acts more like an “NYPD Blue” cop.  He lets his work drama drive him to make volatile and disastrous decisions at home, and his home drama drives him him to make volatile and disastrous decisions at work. Then, as he will every week, he gets his shit together, corrects his way of thinking, and fixes both situations. 

When he calls his family meeting, he begins by saying, “I may have to be ‘urban’ at work, but I’m still going to need my family to be black. Not black-ish, but black. We are going to keep it real.” The family meeting does not go well, making him more upset, and at the end he announces: “Tomorrow I have a very important presentation to make and you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go in there, I’m going to keep it real as [unintelligible]”. The actions he takes both at home and work create train wrecks, primarily because they affect each other.

This is all well and good. This is a comedy, and Dre, unlike the cops on “NYPD Blue”, is a buffoonish figure. It’s fun and believable to watch his homelife and worklife negatively affect each other …And besides, it’s just advertising. I’m not being asked to root for him to save lives. He can screw up an ad campaign without any killers going free, so it’s all fun and games.

Rulebook Casefile: Playing with Expectations in the “Black-ish” Pilot

Kenya Barris knows we’ve seen pilots before, and he knows we’re trying to get ahead of him. So he plays with us.

We meet a wealthy, overconfident man with a closet full of individually lit sneakers, and he assures us in voiceover that he’s absolutely sure he’s going to get a big promotion today. He promises his family and co-workers it’s coming. Then his boss gathers everybody in the conference room and announces that sure enough, someone is going to be promoted to Senior Vice-President. Our hero confidently picks up his stuff and begins moving over to the “senior management only” side of the table before the boss announces the name. On the way, he cockily says to a woman of color: “Sabrina, I’m not going to forget about you when I become one of them, alright?”

It’s only after Dre has shoved others aside to take his new place that the boss finally announces, “So without any further ado, I’d like us all to give a warm congrats to…”

…So what’s going to happen? Well if we’ve ever seen a pilot before, we’re sure of one thing: Dre is not going to get the promotion. Everything in the pilot so far has set us up for a big reversal. Overconfidence must be punished! But then Dre does get the promotion! We’re shocked. Why did they try so hard to set us up for a reversal and then not deliver?

But there’s one hitch: Specifically, his boss announces that he’ll be “the SVP of our new Urban division.” And Dre has already told us in voiceover that he considers “urban” to be a ridiculous term. Dre is clearly not pleased, and says in his voice-over, “Wait, did they just put me in charge of black stuff?”, then we cut to commercial.

So why did Barris push all of our “they’re about to announce someone else got the promotion” buttons, only to have our hero’s overconfidence be validated after all? Well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster: We’re excited for him, then worried about his overconfidence, then almost pitying his delusion that he’s going to get it, then shocked to be happy for him …then shocked again when we realize that, in Dre’s mind, this is a slap-down. As far as he’s concerned, he didn’t really get a promotion. He’s only been put in charge of his own ghetto. Sure enough, when he gets home, his father calls him, “head puppet of the white man.”

Burris has toyed with our pre-existing narrative expectations in order to convey to us the hero’s peculiar emotional state. This moment establishes the tone of the whole series: Dre is a winner but his psychological and cultural baggage makes him feel perpetually dissatisfied. As in any good ironic story, he’s either winning by losing or losing by winning. 

It’s always good to hurt your hero in ways that would only hurt your hero, because then you have a unique and volatile main character. Only Dre would be heartbroken by this news, and that makes him compelling.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Superlative Writing Basics in “The Intuitionist”

As I said yesterday, there were several elements of “The Intuitionist” that made it hard to identify with Lila Mae. So if I was alienated from my hero, why did I keep reading? Simply speaking, when the writing is this good, the author earns a lot of leeway. Ultimately, novel writing comes down to the basics: great words, great sentences, great paragraphs, and great chapters. Let’s look at some:

Whitehead uses adjectives that we can vividly see but we’ve never heard before. 
  • “The light at this hour, on this street, is the secondhand gray of ghetto twilight, a dull mercury color.”
  • A character has a “Hieroglpyic squint”
  • “All of the Department’s cars are algae green.”
  • A large bed is “swimmable”
  • He uses great sensory writing (and another great adjective): “The hallway smells of burning animal fat and obscure gravies boiling to slag.”
Every one of Whitehead’s character descriptions are delightful. 
  • She thinks about the men who have come before and sums one up quickly: “Martin Gruber chews with his mouth open and likes to juggle his glass eye.” 
  •  Later, we get to go into the head of one of the mafia goons searching her apartment: “He’s still searching for a concordance between the loss of his virginity (purchased) and an ankle sprain (accidental) exactly three years later, give or take an hour. John is sure it will come, awaiting another item in the series or a new perspective on the extant ones. No matter.”
Whitehead’s street description are great: “It is situated in the heart of the city, on a streetcorner that clots with busy, milling citizens during the day and empties completely at night except for prostitutes and lost encyclopedia salesmen.”

He does a great job job of breaking up sentence into shorter sentences in order to convey skepticism: “A regrettable incident in Atlanta kicked up a lot of fuss in the trades a few years back, but an inquiry later absolved Arbo of any wrongdoing. As they say.” Inserting that period takes the place of unneeded sentences, adjectives, and adverbs.

An aspiring novelist might find it worth their time to simply transcribe this novel and chew over every sentence to learn how to write.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: It’s Hard to Shout Your Humility to the Hills

So let’s talk about a fundamental problem with stories like The Farewell

Perhaps my favorite novel is “A Fan’s Notes” by Fred Exley. Like this, it’s a barely-veiled autobiographical story about Exley’s personal journey to humility. He spends the book dreaming of being a great novelist, then realizes at the end that he’s not destined for greatness, but is, at heart, a fan, fated to live through the greatness of others.

It’s overwhelming, heartbreaking, and totally convincing when he comes to this realization.

…but then, of course, he turned this realization into a Great American Novel! It never made him a household name but it ensured he could spend the rest of his life teaching novel writers in Iowa until he drunk himself to death.

It’s hard to publish a story about how you learned humility, because shouting your story to the masses is a profoundly un-humble thing to do.

This paradox is perhaps even more evident with The Farewell. The movie’s tagline is “Based on an Actual Lie”, and it was promoted as the true story of how writer/director Lulu Wang was convinced to go along with her family’s decision to lie to her grandmother about her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. In the end, we cut to real footage of Wang’s grandmother and a title tells us, “Six years after he diagnosis, Nai Nai is still with us.” We are invited to consider that she’s still alive because of the lie.

But then Wang made herself world famous by turning the story into a very successful movie, and, inevitably, this led to her grandmother finding out about her diagnosis! According to the movie’s implied logic, this might kill her!

But this is something that all writers go through, even if we’re not claiming to write about our own lives: We suck up the lives and experiences of our loved ones, process them, and then trumpet them to the world. It’s been argued that you know you’ve written a great novel when you get banned from your home town (true of writers from Dante to Joyce). You’re hoping to find universal truth, but as a result you’re hoping to become rich and famous, which could not be less universal.

Will Wang be welcome at the next family gathering? Will she be blamed when Nai Nai does eventually die? Is weathering those accusations worth achieving fame? That’s a decision every semi-autobiographical writer must make for themselves.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Specificity is Universal

Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” says of its creation
  • “We originally had very little hope of its ever being produced. On the surface, it seemed to have very little commercial appeal. After all, we were writing about a community of poor Russian Jews facing a pogrom - a very unlikely subject for a musical. There was, in fact, very little enthusiasm from producers about presenting the show. But we kept working on it because we loved the subject, we loved what the show was saying, and we felt very close to the material.
He talks about going to the first Japanese production:
  • “Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment…I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”
Likewise, in the DVD documentary, Anna Wang talks about The Farewell:
  • “When I first told my parents that I was gonna make this film, they were sort of skeptical, because I showed them the script that I’d written and my dad said ‘Yeah, this is how it happened, but why does anybody want to see this, y’know?’ They were shocked that anybody was willing to give me money to put these mundane details of our lives, of our family life up on a big screen”
She goes on to say:
  • “These details, they’re not boring, and they are worthwhile on a big screen, and so, I didn’t really know how people would respond, because I dove into the specificity of my family, and so to see the response at Sundance, to see people saying, ‘Oh, this is so universal, the story is so universal, these characters are so universal, this family is so universal.’ It’s so meaningful because it speaks to the fact that you can fine universality through specificity and that a story can be universal because of the specifics and not in spite of them, and so I think that my biggest dream is just that this opens doors for other filmmakers to tell their own specific stories and that people are gonna be more inviting to let filmmakers tell their own stories and do it on their own terms.”
Specificity is universal. The reason it works is because of scenes like the one I discussed yesterday, where the family winds up having a comedy of errors at the grandfather’s grave. The whole point of the scene is that this would only ever happen in China, where they have very particular graveside traditions that seem absurd to outsiders, even to a granddaughter who was born there but moved away young.

But because the details of the scene are so oddly specific to one culture, they feel universal.

To a certain extent, both Stein and Wang said, “Fuck it, I’m not going to write about a de-racialized plucky everyman hero in an attempt to ingratiate myself with the storytelling public, I’m going to write a story that only I can tell about my own people that will probably only appeal to my own people, but it’s the story I want to tell.”

Audiences worldwide are more likely to identify with specific, odd, absurd details that we haven’t seen before than we are to identify with “universal” details that we’re already familiar with. Judaism has very little in common with Shintoism, but if you write a very Jewish story with enough specificity, many Japanese people will say, “This was written just for us.”

Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write Dramedy

Dramedy is a tricky genre. We’ve looked at Sideways, which has some broadly comedic scenes, some entirely dramatic scenes, and lots of wry scenes in between, but The Farewell represents a different sort of quiet dramedy that constrains itself into a narrower range, never really allowing us to laugh out loud, but gently teasing out the inherent ironic humor of its situations throughout. 

Let’s look at a great quietly-comedic scene, when the family visits the grave of Billi’s grandfather. As with many other scenes in the movie, we’re observing a Chinese cultural ritual that is baffling to Billi. 

 We have just heard the mom complain about how China has professional criers at funerals, then we cut to an ostentatious crier at a funeral, so we’re invited to assume this is a professional another family has hired.

Meanwhile, Billi’s family have brought the grandfather’s favorite foods to put on his above-ground tomb. they fight over whether they have to open the bags of cookies and/or peel the oranges (“Yes, peel them, otherwise he can’t eat them”).

Billi’s dad then tries to lay a lit cigarette on his father’s tomb but his mother objects:
  • Grandma: Don’t give him cigarettes, he quit!
  • Father: He didn’t quit.
  • Grandma: He did! A week before he passed, he quit.
  • Father: Dad just told you he quit, but he never quit!
  • Uncle: Ma, let the man smoke! He’s already dead, what else can happen? Enjoy the cigarette, dad.
Eventually, they just start eating the food themselves and having a good time. Then the scene gets a bit more serious as grandma asks, “Why’d you have to leave us so early?” The answer, as we learned elsewhere in the movie, is that he had cancer and she didn’t tell her, driving home the gravity of Billi’s decision. 

Indie dramedies thrive on this sort of not-quite-laugh-out-loud scenes full of wonderfully ironic comedy, often hand-in-hand with the movie’s drama.  A solemn ritual results in petty bickering. A dead man isn’t allowed to smoke.  Lots of big and little lies are told, all in the name of genuine love and affection. The whole movie is right here.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create a False Mystery

I haven’t mentioned it in years, but one of the two screenplays I got that won some money and got me signed by a big-deal manager was my biopic of Alan Turing. It had a lot of big fans in Hollywood but they said they couldn’t make it because Turing was gay, so my manager gave up on it. A few years later, social mores had changed, and another Turing script went out, which sold for a million dollars and won an Oscar. Oh, well.

When I was structuring the script, I decided to play a trick. My script covered many years and ended with my hero’s suicide, which is kind of a bummer. I decided to begin with the discovery of his body and have a government investigator suspect foul play and reconstruct the story of Turing’s life. In the end: Nope, it was just a suicide. But the false mystery provided more structure than the script would have had otherwise.

“Little Fires Everywhere” does a similar thing. The Richardson house has burned down and everybody naturally suspects daughter Izzy, who has disappeared.
  • “What’s so funny?” Lexie said.
  • “Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”
  • Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”
  • “Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”
  • “So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be responsible?”
  • “Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”
  • “Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You?”
  • Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”
  • “There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”
  • “Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”
  • “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.”
  • “We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.
  • “You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
  • Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.
  • “Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.
  • After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”
  • No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road.
We already sense that Moody is, in some ways, smarter than his brother and sister, and he has his doubts about Izzy. Then Ng points out that nobody has connected the fire yet to the disappearance of two more people: Mia and Pearl. The implication is clear: Izzy probably didn’t do it, and the reader is invited to spend the book trying to guess the real culprit.

And in the end, we find out the culprit is… Izzy, working alone, who went around the house starting little fires everywhere, just as Lexie and Trip assumed. It was a false mystery, tricking us into reading avidly. 
But ultimately it’s fair, for the same reason my own false mystery was fair, because Turing ultimately was sort of murdered by a larger conspiracy, and lots more people were ultimately responsible for the complex chain of events that led Izzy to start the fires. It turns out to be worthwhile, in both stories, to closely examine the events leading up to this tragedy to discover the complex web of ill-will that led up to it. 
Both stories are fairly diffuse, and brought into sharper relief by beginning with a flash-forward and a false mystery. It’s a devious trick, but I recommend it with some stories.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Necessity of Personifying Nature in “Educated”

We already talked about personifying nature with “The God of Small Things”, but Tara Westover in “Educated” does it even more so, many times over on her first page.

As I said last time, Westover has a problem, in that we will want Tara to run away from her family home long before she does, and then we’ll want her to stop going back, which she will not do until the final chapter. (In the end, she says she’ll keep visiting other relatives in Idaho, but seemingly never again her parents or her mountain.)

How can Westover help us understand her decision?

  • First, she must make Tara’s relationships to her family complex: None of them is all bad. They all love her in their own insufficient and/or twisted ways. We can even understand the appeal of “Shawn”, her most abusive family member. We understand how she would keep trying to get the love she’s lacking from these people, even though we can see long before she can that she never will.
  • Second, there’s a big element of wish fulfillment in self-sufficiency. The first sentence recalls “The Boxcar Children”, a book about orphaned kids in the depression that kids nevertheless read as wish-fulfillment, dreaming of living on their own wits and whiles in the woods. The mere fact of not being protected at all is seductive, both to young Tara and to the reader.
  • Third, there is a character that Tara can have uncomplicated love for, one that it will be the most painful to leave: The mountain itself.

You often hear said of good books that “The setting is a character”, but that’s especially true here. Let’s just focus on examples from the first paragraph.

  • The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling.
  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air.
  • Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base.
  • If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.

Two pages later, she will soon explain that there is an Indian legend that says the mountain is a princess:

  • My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.

Her family is hard to love, but who wouldn’t want to have their own beautiful mountain, literally right out of a fairy tale? To leave the mountain is to leave her own princess-tale.

Let’s look at one more sentence from the second paragraph:

  • The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.

This is beautifully written and very seductive. We will want to read the book for its lyrical power, and for the way it will get us to fall in love with nature again, as we would fall in love with a lover. And we will understand Tara’s love. Even when it seems like her parents want her dead, she will have the Princess to love and the Princess will seem to love her back, in its anthropomorphized way.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Different Type of Agency in “Educated”

Tara Westover had a problem.  She knew the hero of her memoir “Educated”, her own young self, would be very easy to believe in, because of a wealth of detail (she kept journals at the time), and very easy to care about, because of the horrible abuse and neglect she suffered, but could the reader invest in her? 

Tara (I’ll refer to her younger self as “Tara” for the rest of these posts) will withstand a lot of abuse before she runs away. As with a teen in a horror movie, the audience will be shouting “Just get out of the house!” for the entire first half (then we’ll be shouting “And don’t go back!” for the second half, but she will continue to do so.) If her family loves her at all, it’s such a sick, twisted, toxic love that she’d be better off without it. We’re going to get frustrated as she stays. We know that it’s unfair to judge an abused child, but it’s hard to root for a heroine who doesn’t try to flee this situation.

But what choice does young Tara have? She’s just a child, totally cut off from the rest of the world until she’s 17: She’s never set foot in a school, never seen a doctor, she has no birth certificate, she is forced to spend her summers canning peaches and burying rifles in anticipation of the “Days of Abomination”.

Does the fact that she has little choice mitigate our difficulty in bonding with her? No, it intensifies it. We want our heroes to protect themselves, but we also want them to have agency. We want them to be making decisions. Preferably good decisions, but even bad decisions are better than none at all.

That’s why Westover’s first chapter is so brilliant. She can’t begin with her hero fighting back, but she does the next best thing: She begins with her younger self getting one chance to choose a better life and rejecting it.

The first chapter skillfully weaves together three different incidents that didn’t actually happen at the same time (and she makes that clear): Her father’s decision that the bible forbids milk (a metaphor for denying love), her father’s obsession with the fate of Randy Weaver, and an offer that Tara’s grandmother made to her around the same time: to abscond with Tara in the middle of the night, take her from Idaho to Arizona, and enroll her in school.

And Tara seriously considers it. She knows, on some level, that she’s being abused, that she should be in school, that her grandmother is trying to save her …but in the morning she hides until her grandmother leaves without her.

Tara lacks the self-preservation instinct we want in a hero, but at least she has agency in this one chapter. She has a better option, agonizes over it, and ultimately refuses to take it. This is not the first incident in the book chronologically, but Westover must begin here to get us to invest in the character, as much as we can. For the next two hundred pages, Tara will lack capability, but she will at least have culpability, and that is compelling in its own way. The story will have irony, because this horrible life will be a life she chose. That makes it far more meaningful.

The Ten Urges That Stories Can Satisfy

Hi guys! Sorry, I’d meant to do another book before Christmas but time has gotten away from me. Instead, let’s just have one big blow-out December post. I’ve talked about urges in the past, but recently, in giving someone notes, I had to get more specific about what I was talking about, so I came up with a possibly-complete list of the ten urges that stories can satisfy. Most stories should satisfy 3-6 of these (though Rushmore seems to only do two).

  • To Laugh (Comedy, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from a dose of humor. It’s easier to identify with funny heroes. Funny sidekicks, love interests, and even villains can also increase our enjoyment of a story. On the flip side, laughing at a hero or side kick’s foibles, bad luck, or cluelessness can also bond us to them, since it gives us permission to laugh at our own failings.

  • To Gasp (Thriller, Horror, Action)

We gasp when things are shocking or horrific. This can also be referred to the “edge of your seat” quality.

  • To Swoon (Romance, everything else)

We want to share a hero’s romantic hopes and fears. We want to share their yearning, to have that yearning thwarted painfully, perversely punished, and finally gratified (or tragically thwarted once and for all, which brings us to our next urge…)

  • To Cry (Romance, Tragedy, Drama)

We cry when things are tragic. Things are most tragic when they’re bitterly ironic. When the hero simply fails despite their best efforts, that’s just a bummer, not tragic. When they fail because of their best efforts, or realize they must choose to fail, the tears come.

  • To Dread (Thriller, Drama, Tragedy)

The deepening sinking sensation that something awful is going to happen is perversely pleasurable for an audience, all the better if we’re not exactly sure what form the disaster will take.

  • To Speculate (Science Fiction, Fantasy)

Sci-fi and fantasy are very different, but most fans of one are also fans of the other, albeit less so. They both offer the thrill of escapism: to imagine a world wildly different from our own and to wonder at possibilities we’ve never considered (which gives us the hope that maybe more things are possible here.)

  • To Puzzle (Mystery, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from adding a big mystery and/or a series of satisfying mini-mysteries to solve along the way. Sometimes we’re solving the mysteries alongside the hero, sometimes they’re only mysteries to the audience.

  • To Burn (Historical Fiction, Drama)

Can one “enjoy” a movie like 12 Years a Slave? On some odd level, yes, because it’s pleasurable to burn with righteous indignation at the sight of injustice. 

  • To Lust (Romance, everything else)

This frequently but not always overlaps with swooning. We like to be turned on. In books, we mostly just lust in sex and seduction scenes, but in movies we can have the visual pleasure of sexiness onscreen in every scene.

  • To Cheer (Action, some Horror)

Once we’ve gasped, we want to release that tension by cheering. In horror, this only comes at the end, but in action stories we get lots of chances to cheer throughout. Any genre can have “stand up and cheer” moments.

And now here are two massive charts. Above, you’ll find one for the books we’ve looked at (It’s good that I have enough data to start some crunching!) and below you’ll find one for the movies we’ve looked at:

What do you guys think? Are there any urges I’ve missed? Do you disagree about the urges these stories fulfill?