Zombies and bestsellers

I just finished reading World War Z by Max Brooks, which is #87 on the list of 100 books the algorithm in The Bestseller Code (Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers) thinks you should read. I enjoyed it – my review is on Goodreads if you’re interested – and one of my compatriots in this 100-book journey suggested looking back at The Bestseller Code to try to understand why this was chosen.

Theme and topics

The algorithm says that bestsellers limit their focus. They give 30% of their paragraphs to just one or two topics. This focus brings both depth and a story that can be easily followed by the reader. WWZ clearly hits this mark: everything in the book is about the zombies – how the plague got started, how it spread, how it affected the world, and how humanity fought back.

As for secondary topics, an important one is work – TBC mentions Stephen King’s assertion that readers love to read about work, and in WWZ, which is structured in the form of interview notes with people who lived through the crisis, almost all the interviews are with people who were doing their jobs. We read about pilots, astronauts, soldiers, doctors, and sleazy profiteers.

Maybe the absence of human closeness as an important secondary topic – it comes up some, but not a lot – helps explain why this is ranked #87 on the list and not higher. On the other hand, the book is sound on dogs, another important feature to the reading public. And it includes lots of modern technology, with descriptions and even footnotes about military vehicles and weapons.

Pace and plotting

Bestsellers break up the tension with scenes of ordinary life, giving readers a chance to catch their breath. I think the lead-ins to the interviews serve this function: they provide a little background about the person being interviewed and the life they’re living now, after the worst is over.

The algorithm identified 7 patterns in ups and downs of bestseller plots. I think WWZ matches one of them pretty well. It’s the same one that fits Stephen King’s The Stand, another story where humanity is decimated by a terrible plague and the world is changed forever. The key seems to be that the curves need to be steep enough to grab the reader. WWZ gives us a plummeting downhill slope from warnings and blame to the great panic; gives us something to cheer about when people figure out how to fight back; and then drags us down again with what’s happened to the world and the seemingly endless task of eradicating the remaining zombies.

Style and voice

Readers like voices that speak with authority, like Jane Austen’s famous first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And many modern readers like language that sounds like the way people talk, which TBC calls the journalistic (as opposed to literary) style and, by the way, identifies with women writers. The structure of WWZ does this brilliantly. The interviewer barely appears, so each piece is the transcribed speech of a person who lived through events and has had time to reflect on them and decide what they think about it. While I was reading the book, my only quibble was that not all the voices were differentiated from each other.

Characters with agency

Finally, readers like characters who do things. WWZ‘s 100-ish interviews are all with people who did something. The algorithm identifies this through analyzing word choice. Flipping back through the pages of WWZ, I see flying, guard, make a stand, risk, drop, climb, slam, shoot, grab, drilled, jazzed, all showing characters doing stuff. The book also has some good, strong female characters. And let’s not forget the dogs, who sniff, hunt, launch themselves, and lure.

If you’d like to learn more about the Bestseller Code 100 or join us on our journey, check out the official book group site at Roberta and Karen’s It’s A Mystery blog.

 

 

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Living better the Nashville way

I went to an all-day seminar last weekend with my friend Maureen and a group of people from my old office. We got a great group price on tickets. As it turns out, some elements of the conference weren’t exactly my cup of tea (like the woman who planted herself in our friend Tanya’s seat during the morning break and refused to budge – we got the last laugh, though, because after lunch the venue moved our group to a VIP suite), but with 9 speakers, I came away with a bucket full of ideas for making life better.

Intentionality (Dave Ramsey)

  • You become what you think about. Be intentional about what you think about.
  • Decide to change, then change. Set goals that are specific, measurable, have a time limit, are your own, and are in writing.
  • You’re not failing if you don’t quit – you’re experimenting. Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.
  • When choosing between options, think about where you want to be in 10 years.

Priorities (Christy Wright)

  • Spend your time on what’s important to you. Cut out what doesn’t matter, and do more of what you love.
  • Be 100% present. If you tend to get caught by social media (who doesn’t?) think about two questions: 1 – is it more important to know what the rest of the world is doing than to experience what I’m doing? 2 – it is more important for the rest of the world to know what I’m doing than for me to experience it myself?
  • Say yes to your own priorities, not everyone else’s. For people-pleasers: there’s a difference between doing something to be loving and doing it to be loved.

Gratitude and generosity (Chris Brown)

  • You can be resentful or you can be grateful. Gratitude makes you want to give to others.
  • You don’t have to feel rich to act rich – the magic number for feeling rich is always double whatever you have. Be generous.
  • Gratitude breeds contentment and generosity. Try this: every morning when you wake up, think about two things you’re grateful for. Write them down on a running list.

Money (Rachel Cruze and Chris Hogan)

  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. (You’re probably only seeing their highlight reel, anyway.)
  • Stay out of debt, have a plan for your money (a budget), and think before you spend. Rachel Cruze recommends the everydollar app for budgeting.
  • Save for emergencies, then to have 3-6 months of living expenses, and then for the future.
  • Give a little until you can give a lot.
  • Talk about money with your partner and your kids, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Plan for retirement so you don’t have to worry about money.
  • Talk about your retirement dreams with your partner. Make the dreams vivid and specific, so you know where you’re going.

Relationships (Les Parrott)

  • The four horsemen that ruin relationships are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
  • In contrast to the world of work where the “praise sandwich” has a bad reputation – poor performers may not get the message, and be surprised when they lose their jobs – in a personal relationship, wrapping a negative between two positives makes the message go down easier.
  • Marriage doesn’t make you happy; you make your marriage happy.

Parenting (Meg Meeker)

  • Kids need to know they’re important to their parents. Spend time with them.
  • Don’t take teenager behavior personally.
  • Model great character – integrity, patience, courage, and perseverance.
  • Praise for character, not just for achievements.

Growing up (Anthony O’Neal)

  • Be determined to be the best you can.
  • Be uncomfortable. Don’t let comfort kill your dreams.
  • Mistakes in the past don’t define us, they refine us.

The presenters are headquartered in Nashville, and several of the speakers had that passionate bible-belt presentation style that got the crowd on its feet. They all have books and podcasts. The ones I plan to check out myself are from Christy WrightRachel Cruze, Anthony O’Neal, and the star of the show, Dave Ramsey.

Don’t give up: Lessons for discouraged writers from the Tucson book festival

Progress on my novel has been slow lately. Who am I kidding? Progress on whatever fiction I’m writing is always slow. (Except during NaNoWriMo, when I’ve produced quantities of highly questionable prose at a breakneck pace.) I look around my critique group and my online writers’ groups, and my friends are finishing projects, getting agents interested in their novels, getting short stories published, having their plays produced… I’m thrilled for them but sometimes it makes me wonder if I belong in such exalted company.

And then – I went to the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books and I came away totally invigorated, inspired, and encouraged.

Shannon Messenger: 20 drafts

The author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade series and the Sky Fall young adult series spoke on 20 Ways Not to Write Your First Book. What writer could resist that session title? They had to turn people away at the door because the room was too full.

The published version of her first Keeper novel is the 20th draft she wrote. Here’s the publisher Simon and Schuster’s website for the series now:

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.10.17 AM

She didn’t even finish the first 10 drafts – she got bored, and realized the reader would, too. She finally figured out that working from a too-rigid outline was the problem; she was too quick to talk herself out of writing a scene so she could cut to one that was on the outline. (Her background is in screenwriting.) When she finished draft #11, she started working with a critique partner, who pointed out that her third-person narration needed to include Sophie’s internal monologue. The reader wants to know what she’s thinking and feeling so they can make an emotional connection and care about the character. With draft #13, she felt she was ready to start querying agents.

She landed a contract with her dream agent, who was looking for just this kind of book, but required revisions before she would start shopping the book. Shannon showed us the email – 4 pages, single spaced, 10-point font, including “the writing isn’t as strong in chapters 3-11 as it is in the rest of the book.” Little things like that. Holes in her world building. It took her a couple more drafts to satisfy the agent, and then the novel started going out to publishers.

The first editor who read it loved the book, but nobody else in the publishing house did, and they rejected it, as did 7 other publishers. All of them said the book was unmarketable: her main character was too mature for a middle grade series, but too young for YA, and some things in her book were considered “too JK Rowling”. She rewrote it to address the comments in the rejection letters. Her agent sent her a 13-page email this time: in her revisions, she’d managed to take out everything that made the book good.

She actually drafted her I-give-up email but didn’t send it. Instead, she burrowed back in and revised the novel yet again. This time, it sold, although it took from November to April for the agent to sell it. Draft #19 was to address 4 pages of feedback from the publisher’s editor, and #20 was minor polishing to get it ready for publication.

  • People think you either can write or you can’t – that it’s some magical talent you may or may not be born with. Not true! The torturous process taught her how to write a book. Time and perseverance is the difference between an aspiring writer and a published author.Her subsequent books didn’t take anywhere near 20 drafts to finish, although they did take at least two or three.
  • Do your homework on agents. Shannon worked in the film industry long enough to know that not every agent will be a good fit for you. Her agent was known to be an “editorial agent” who would give a lot of feedback, which was part of the appeal.
  • A good editor helps you write the book you thought you wrote the first time. You have to learn when to dig in your heels and when to make changes. For her, it comes down to “do I like the revised version?”
  • The first draft is dumping the sand in the sandbox, and the revisions are building the castle. 

Shannon Messenger’s 9th book is coming out in November 2017.

Charles Johnson: 6 years

The National Book Award winner for Middle Passage and former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington – a man with a mindbendingly Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.09.49 AMimpressive list of accomplishments and awards (read his bio on Amazon) – spoke on The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Charles Johnson is my new hero, and I’m seriously considering following him around the country in a VW microbus. You can get a flavor of his conversation by listening to him in this recording from the Diane Rehm show.
Middle Passage 
took six years to write. He wrote the first draft in two years, barreling forward based on his outline, but the second idea that he needed to make it really work wasn’t there. The book is about a mutiny on a slave ship, and the second idea was that the crew also mutinied. It just took time to identify the “clean through line” for the book.

More recently, he wrote a novel, Dreamer, about Martin Luther King, starting with the idea that maybe King had a double to stand in for him, and maybe that’s who was assassinated. Before he even started to write, he spent an entire year reading everything he could about King, until he felt he knew him inside out and could write authentically.

Nathan Hill: 10 years

The author of the book I saw front and center in every bookstore I entered last year, The Nix, took 10 years to write it.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.35.19 AMHe turned the corner when he quit trying to write for publication and wrote his own truth, what he wanted to read. His book debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The author was on a panel about Satire and Dysfunction. My favorite comment in the session was a quote from Flannery O’Connor, who said that if you survived adolescence you have enough material for a lifetime of novels.

Keep on writing

I guess I was particularly attuned to this message at this year’s festival. In a panel discussion on Setting as Character, Dawn Tripp (author of Georgia) said she’d spent 5 years converting a 122-page poem into a novel that was universally rejected but taught her how to write; and Brunonia Barry (author of The Lace Reader) admitted that it wasn’t only research that made her latest book take 5 years to write.

I came home ready to dive back into the third major rewrite of my mystery novel. How about you? What are your tricks to keep you motivated when it seems like it’s taking forever? Please share them in the comments.

Happiness

There’s something about being human that makes us less happy than we ought to be. I grew up on A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew a lot of the poems by heart when I was little. One little poem has bounced around in my head all these years:

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Research has shown that the benefits of an optimistic outlook include flexible thinking, creativity, longevity, and better health. What better way to solve the problems of the world, then, than to cultivate happiness in ourselves?

According to Dr. Lamees Khorshid, about 40% of our happiness comes from our genetic preset, our predisposition towards being sunny or gloomy. That means over half can be influenced by “happiness habits.”

Happiness and Mindfulness

  • Cultivate positive emotions and work on countering the natural negativity bias (a survival trait when it was important to remember the lion attack). Rewire your brain through practice:
    • Choose to see problems as challenges and opportunities. This will increase your sense of control.
    • Reverse the tendency to blame others when they make mistakes – we tend to blame the environment when we mess up, but think other people cut us off in traffic on purpose. Let it go.
    • Change the channel – choose to forget negative things after they happen.
    • Think happy thoughts.
  • Practice gratitude.
    • Make a list of what you’re grateful for. Keep going past the obvious first few things.
    • Pick one of the people you’re grateful for and write a paragraph about why. Read it to them. It will be good for both of you.
  • Engage in life. Plan your time so you include the things that give you pleasure.
    • Figure out the things that take you to a flow state where you lose track of time, and plan your day to include those things.
    • Identify your time thieves and the things that replenish you. Schedule time for the things that nourish you. Things that give you short-term happiness, like watching tv, can detract from your long-term happiness.
  • Get adequate sleep. Without it, it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You function better and your memory’s better when you have good sleep. A lot of people have trouble sleeping. If you do:
    • Create a sleep climate about an hour before. Dim the lights, do relaxing things. Don’t eat for 2-3 hours before bed, don’t exercise for 4-5 hours before, and avoid stimulants after 2 p.m.
    • Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends.
    • Don’t have a tv, phone, etc. in the bedroom. Keep the lights off.
    • If you’ve been trying to get to sleep (or get back to sleep) for 30 minutes, get up and go do something boring. If you still can’t sleep, do it again. Don’t just lie there and worry about how you ought to be sleeping.
    • Naps reverse your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, skip the naps.
  • Movement and music. If you can only do one thing to improve your mental well-being, make it exercise. A brisk 10-minute walk is better for mild to moderate anxiety and depression than medication. If you have to choose between 30 minutes of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise, you’ll get more benefits from exercise.
    • Don’t schedule exercise for your most tired time of day.
    • Morning workouts give you a stress buffer that lasts through the day, and your schedule’s less likely to be interrupted by things that come up during the day – but if you aren’t a morning person, you won’t stick with it.
    • Make it a routine, not dependent on whether you feel like it. You still get the benefits of doing it even if you don’t want to.
  • Nutrition. A low glycemic diet is best for your mood; it keeps your blood sugar on an even keel. Frequent small meals are better than a couple of large ones. Avoid sugar, which lights up a part of your brain that makes you want more and more – this is even true of sugar you don’t taste that’s been added to non-sweet foods.
  • Manage stress. Identify your stress triggers so you can avoid them or prepare for them. Having a baseline level of energy and physical health (sleep, exercise, nutrition) will help. Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and rely on your social supports and relationships. If your stress comes from all the unfinished tasks on your to-do list, start with the one thing on the list that will make the greatest difference today.
  • Practice mindfulness. We recycle 95% of the same thoughts every day. Mindfulness keeps us in the here and now. Use meditation, which will improve your ability to process emotions and be less reactive.
    • Non-judging awareness: notice your wandering thought, name it, and then come back to the here and now.
    • Beginner’s mind: don’t expect a life-changing epiphany every time you sit.
  • Take care of relationships. Other people can be a major source of both happiness and stress.
    • The 4 horsemen of broken relationships are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This applies to friends  and coworkers just as much as it does to couples and families.
    • Check out the Seattle Love Lab for tons of information on this topic.
    • If you have gridlock problems that you can never fix – like your and your uncle’s opposite views on politics – it’s actually healthier not to talk about them.
    • Practice the art of the start: the way you introduce a topic predicts how the discussion will end.
    • Support the other person’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Ask their opinion. Look for moments of connection.
    • Learn the other person’s “love language” – what makes them feel loved. It could be gifts, acts of service (doing things for them), physical touch, words of affirmation, or quality time spent together. This works both ways: you can give the other person what they need, and you can also recognize the ways they’re trying to show you their feelings.
  • Find your purpose. Not having a purpose or mission is as bad for your health as smoking. When you’re doing things that align with your values, you’re happier. Figure out your own top values, and set goals that align with them. Dr. John Izzo studied end-of-life reflections and identified being true to yourself and following your heart and dreams as two important factors in a well-lived life.
  • Simplify. Forgive and let go, don’t make social comparisons, and spend on experiences instead of things.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. I wrote a bit about this a few weeks ago when I talked about Mike Robbins’ class. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
  • Use humor and laughter! Learn to appreciate the ironies in life. Bring funny stuff into your life – photos, videos, comics, comedy shows, that coffee mug showing nervous little dogs preparing for their day by making espresso. Laughter is contagious. It induces a relaxation response and it benefits the immune system.

Read more

In Dr. Lamees Khorshid‘s book, I Want to Be Happy, which provides a 21-day plan for forming happy habits. Her class at my office inspired this post.

In Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s books, like Wherever You Go, There You Are, to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and to find video guides.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project (and on her website & podcasts).

On Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (he writes about this topic often!):

Storytelling in the movies – Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, and Arrival

This is the last in my series about what makes a story worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. In this post I’ll be covering three movies I’ve seen before.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.

The Movies

Hidden Figures

I’m going to skip the synopses for this one. As usual, the Metacritic version is much longer than the IMDB version, but both do a great job of summing up the plot. When the time comes to prepare my own tagline and query letter synopsis, I could do a lot worse than to study the summaries on these site.

Hidden Figures is about three brilliant black women who were mathematicians at NASA when we first went to space. It takes place in Virginia in 1961. At the time, Virginia was still segregated and ignoring the Supreme Court’s Brown vs the Board of Education decision, and NASA was still the domain of men in white shirts and dark ties. The reality of segregation and condescension towards women runs through the movie, manifested by things like a “colored” ladies room that’s half a mile away, a dress code that requires women to wear heels, and NASA’s refusal to promote Dorothy to supervisor although she’s been doing the supervisor’s job for a year. More subtle is the constant use of first names, while people higher in the chain of command are always referred to as Mr. or Mrs. But things are clearly changing: Mary is encouraged by another outsider – a Polish Jew – to become an engineer, and when she learns the rules have changed so she needs to take classes that are only offered at an all-white school, she goes to court and wins the right to enroll. And John Glenn insists on having Katherine check the new computer’s calculations before he’s sent into orbit.

We meet Katherine when she’s a child, reciting prime numbers as she walks through the forest. We see her being selected for an advanced school, the only one available to black children, and find out her teachers have taken a collection to help with the expenses. The next scene sets us up to know all three women and their distinct personalities. They’re broken down at the side of the road on their way to work. Dorothy is fixing the car, Katherine is staring into space thinking about something, and Mary has to be cautioned not to say anything to annoy the state trooper who’s pulling up, lights flashing.

The plot is complex. There’s the main plot about the U.S. space race with the Soviet Union. Obviously, we all know what happened, but the movie manages to make it suspenseful anyway. Then each of the women has her own plot about her career at NASA, and we also get a subplot of Katherine’s family life and romance with a handsome officer, and glimpses of Mary’s husband’s involvement with the civil rights movement and Dorothy’s life with her sons. The movie manages to weave all these parts into a coherent whole. It doesn’t use a parallel structure like Hell or High Water did. Rather, we mostly follow Katherine, but we get a scene about one of the others dropped in when it comes around on the timeline.

Much of the movie’s impact comes from the visuals. There are clips of actual footage from the time, including tv reports, people watching the launch from the beach, and reporting on civil rights protests, as well as Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon and the shots of John Glenn’s launch and splashdown. Katherine’s daily run in heels, carrying her work, to and from the only ladies room she’s allowed to use, is a powerful recurring scene.

What did I learn about storytelling? Once again, the importance of establishing the main character and getting the reader to care about her right away. And letting the facts speak for themselves. There’s not a lot of comment about the unfairness of the segregated system; it’s just there, the way things were in that time and place, and the implications are obvious. Focus is important here, too, even though or maybe because the plot is so complicated. In each scene, we know what to pay attention to, so even though the point of view changes, we’re not lost.

Manchester by the Sea

I was surprised to find out that this one didn’t hold up to a second viewing as well as Hidden Figures and Hell or High Water. (Or I suppose maybe it’s seeing nine movies in seven days, exhausting my emotions.) It’s still a spectacularly beautiful movie, with its New England waterfront locations, and the performances and storytelling are still terrific, but it just didn’t have the emotional impact it had the first time around. That emotional impact was a big part of what made me love this movie the first time I saw it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW  

So the big question about this movie’s storytelling is how did it create that emotional impact? We first see the main characters in a flashback to a scene on the water where Lee is horsing around with his nephew Patrick while his brother Joe pilots the boat. It sets the stage by showing the closeness of the family, and immerses us in the setting. From there, the movie jumps to the present, where Lee is a stoic handyman living in a one-room apartment in the city. We see him working hard, uninterested in the tenants, even when he overhears a beautiful woman telling a friend she has a crush on him. We get a glimpse of his anger at the world when he blows up at a tenant who’s rude to him, and see it in full swing when he picks a fight at the local bar because he thought a couple of guys were looking at him.

The movie sets us up to wonder what happened to make the fun-loving uncle into the miserable bar brawler in a dead end job. His brother’s death is the catalyst for the movie’s action, forcing him to go back to his hometown, where he learns to his surprise that he’s been named as his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian. We get a flashback to later the same day of the opening scene, and now we get to see Lee with his wife and children, continuing the happy family theme; another flashback to a hospital scene where we learn what was wrong with Joe that led to his death; and still another showing why Joe’s wife isn’t there to take care of Patrick. The movie reveals what happened to Lee in one long flashback to the terrible accident that killed his children. It was an accident, but it was also his fault.

The movie’s realism gives it power. You can easily imagine having something like that happen to you. It’s the kind of thing that makes people obsess over whether they locked the door or left the iron on, and go back to check over and over – because the consequences could be so dire if just this once you didn’t check, and you left something cooking on the stove. So a big factor in the emotional impact is showing us what if, what if this did happen in our lives, what would we become.

The part that was missing the second time around was the suspense. The movie builds the question up in our minds, and when we finally learn what happened, it’s simultaneously a relief and a tragedy – it’s a relief to know at last, and I think that adds a bit of punch to the incident itself. Not to get too psychoanalytical or anything, but the lower impact on me could be because I had to work hard to recover from the tragedy the first time I saw the movie, so I came to it already a bit numb. Or as I said in the first paragraph, maybe I’ve just passed my limit for emotional reactions after a week that included Moonlight, Lion, and Fences.

Lessons for writers: Use the reader’s own experience to connect emotionally to the character, and use different emotions to magnify the impact. Show how the most mundane and well-intentioned decision, like building up the fire to keep the house warm and walking to the store instead of driving after drinking, can lead to disaster. Salt the drama with some humor, like the subplot where Patrick is trying desperately to get some time alone with his girlfriend. And once again, as in the other movies I’ve seen this week, introduce your main character’s good, relatable qualities early on, so they’ll stick with him later when you show him at his worst.

Arrival

I am one hundred percent positive this one won’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a science fiction movie. No science fiction movie has ever won, and not many have been nominated. This one falls into my personal category of “cerebral science fiction movies” that are more like written science fiction than the action movie variety.

Now watch me be proven wrong.

SPOILERS FOLLOW – I MEAN IT – READING THIS WILL SPOIL THE MOVIE FOR YOU

This is a movie that benefited from a second viewing. It has a complex plot that only becomes clear near the end of the movie, and knowing the story made it fun to see how everything fits together.

The movie begins with a montage of Louise and her daughter, from babyhood to her death as a teenager. Throughout the movie, we get more flashes from this period of Louise’s life. This beginning establishes her as a loving mother, and the next scenes establish her language expert credentials by showing her in front of her college classroom and in her book-lined office. We meet her physicist counterpart, Ian, in the helicopter that takes them to Montana where one of twelve alien ships has landed. We know how to think about him because we’ve all seen Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.

It’s not such a character driven movie as, say, Moonlight or Fences. The plot is what’s important here. We have mysterious alien ships and spend the whole movie learning what they’re doing here, and the human interest story of Louise and her daughter turns out to be an important way the main plot is disclosed. As it turns out, to the aliens, “there is no time,” meaning not “hurry up, we’re almost out of time” but literally time doesn’t exist as the linear stream we all think we live in. They pass this perception on to Louise, who doesn’t understand it at first – she can’t figure out why she keeps dreaming about this child – but she eventually figures it out, just in time to save the world and the aliens. They’re here because in 3,000 years they are going to need humanity’s help, but humanity needs to learn to work together, hence the twelve scattered ships interacting with twelve different governments. Louise figures it out when she remembers an event 18 months in the future when the Chinese leader tells her that she called him 18 months ago on his private number and told him his wife’s dying words (and gives her the number and the words so it will be possible for her to have called him). The final scene of the movie closes the loop on the first scene; Louise marries the physicist and the little girl will be theirs, and the physicist will leave her when she tells him about the girl’s early death.

Lessons for writers? In order to make the complex plot comprehensible, the components had to be simple enough to follow and recall, like the mother-and-child scenes, and a scene with a guy watching a Rush Limbaugh-like character on tv. Pace the science-y stuff. To show the science of learning to communicate with the aliens, the movie started slow and detailed, then skimmed over the bulk of the work, just showing little snippets to convince us that work was still going on. Keep your eye on the main plot. The parallel plot, where the public is panicking, other governments want to attack the aliens, and our own military people are being pressured for quick results, is mostly conveyed through tv news in the background and interactions between the scientists and the military. It sets the tone of urgency, the ticking time bomb (and there’s literally a ticking time bomb in one scene), but it’s always clear to us that the aliens and the efforts to communicate with them are paramount.

Well, that’s the end of movie watching for us until after the Oscars. I’ll be watching the ceremony this year with more interest than usual, now that I’ve seen these nine films. According to the Internet, the smart money is on La La Land to take the prize. I think Moonlight has a shot, too.

How about you? Have you seen these movies? What did you think of them, and if you’re a writer, what lessons would you take away? Please tell me in the comments.

Storytelling in movies – Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water

Third in my series about what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar,.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

Hacksaw Ridge

The synopsis from Metacritic says:

In Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And here’s IMDB:

WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

I’m seeing a pattern in the synopses on these two websites. IMDB seems to be in it for the long haul, providing a very brief synopsis you’ll be able to look at quickly ten years from now when you’re trying to remember which movie it was that you saw Andrew Garfield in, or when you’re trying to decide whether to watch it when it comes around on tv. Metacritic seems to be using the advertising copy provided by the studio to try to get people to decide to see the movie in the theatre. I could be wrong. In this case, both descriptions are accurate; you just get a bit more detail from Metacritic.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

The storytelling questions I came to this movie series with are how the movie establishes character and generates sympathy for the hero, how it orients us to time and place, how the plot and its beats are arranged, whether it follows the Hero’s Journey pattern, how music and cinematography contribute, and how a writer could accomplish the same thing on the page without benefit of sound and pictures.

Hacksaw Ridge was made by Mel Gibson. So it’s not surprising that the battle scenes (basically the last half of the movie) are graphic and bloody, and that the hero’s religious convictions are a major theme and motivator. It’s also a true story. The real Desmond Doss died about ten years ago, and he actually saved even more soldiers than the movie shows.

We meet the hero as a kid of about 10 in rural Virginia. Interestingly, the first scene in the movie is actually the hero’s father, drinking alone in a graveyard and talking to the dead. The first scene with the boy establishes his energy and his bond with his brother, and the next shows the boys fighting as their mother worries and their father drinks hard liquor from a pint bottle and watches. Des almost kills his brother and is horrified by what he’s done, suggesting an early reason for his later pacifism. We don’t see the whole story of why he refuses to touch a rifle until much later, in a flashback to a scene where he threatens his father with a gun, after stopping his father from shooting his mother.

When we first see Des as a young man, he’s in church. In the same sequence, he saves a guy who’s trapped under a car and takes him to the hospital, where a doctor praises his action and where he falls in love at first sight with a pretty nurse. The time-and-place orientation is through clothing, vehicles, and the way the hospital is equipped. Des is sweet, sincere, heroic, and decent; we know this within probably the first 10 or 15 minutes.

The plot moves along pretty quickly, following a hero’s journey story arc. Des lives an ordinary life, albeit punctuated by his father’s brutality that’s explained by his own experiences in World War One, until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and every young man in town volunteers to serve. His brother signs up first, but Des follows shortly thereafter (we never learn what happened to his brother). Des is off to basic training, where the Army has put him into a rifle company instead of medic training as he says he was promised. Things are bad in basic training because he refuses to touch a gun, and he’s courtmartialed, but his dad pulls strings to get a letter from a general that straightens things out. We next see Des as a medic assigned to that same rifle unit, on its way to take a ridge in Japan. The rest of the movie is horrific battle and aftermath, and Des patiently, heroically, saving one wounded man at a time and lowering them off the ridge to safety.

I can’t say how music contributed to this one – I didn’t notice it at all. I did notice the lack of music in Fences, which was mostly dialogue and silence. I have a feeling that Hacksaw Ridge used music the way most good movies do, to subtly reinforce the emotions drawn out by the action and dialogue. The cinematography here is vivid.

What did I learn? Similar to Moonlight and Lion, the hero in this movie isn’t like most moviegoers, but he has qualities we recognize and admire. His motivations are strange; we understand the perplexity of the other people in the army, but eventually we do understand why he is the way he is. So, patience. Draw the character gradually, and trust the audience to give you time to do it, as long as you’ve given them enough reasons to like the character in the first place.

Hell or High Water

This is the first repeat viewing for me, out of the movies in this Best Picture nominee film series. From here on out, this will be my second time at all the remaining movies.

Once again, Metacritic provides a lot more information in the synopsis than IMDB. So far, though, Moonlight is the only one where I thought the two websites gave me different expectations about the movie.

Metacritic:

Two brothers—Toby (Chris Pine), a straight-living, divorced father trying to make a better life for his son; and Tanner (Ben Foster), a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger—come together to rob branch after branch of the bank that is foreclosing on their family land. The hold-ups are part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that powerful forces beyond their control have stolen from under their feet. Vengeance seems to be theirs until they find themselves in the crosshairs of a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the last honest law man and a pair of brothers with nothing to live for except family collide.

IMDB:

A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

This is a heist movie, so the structure is different from the hero’s journey form, at least as I understand it. It follows two parallel tracks: one for the two brothers, and one for the Texas Rangers who’re trying to catch them. The relationships within each pair, as well as the west Texas landscape, are just as important to the movie as the characters and the action.

Brandon Sanderson talks about three major forces that make a character interesting: competence, likability, and proactivity. Younger brother Toby is high on competence and likability; his older brother Tanner is high on proactivity; ranger Marcus is high on competence and proactivity; his partner Alberto is more likable and seems competent in different ways from Marcus. The movie shows these qualities through actions and interactions, like the scene where Tanner impulsively robs a bank while Toby leaves a $200 tip for a flirty waitress, and the scene where Marcus drags his partner to the small town whose bank branch he’s figured out the pair will rob next.

One challenge for the movie is explaining the bank robberies sympathetically and organically. It does this by dropping bits of information into early scenes so we feel the brothers have a good reason for what they’re doing, and then through a conversation with a lawyer that spells it all out clearly.

The landscape also helps explain what’s going on. The brothers drive on roads with billboards advertising debt relief and going-out-of-business sales, the towns are nearly empty of people, and the scenery outside the towns is vast and desolate. One scene has a group of men on horseback driving cows away from a grass fire that extends as far as we can see in each direction along the horizon. Oil drilling rigs here and there are the only signs of prosperity. Alberto, who’s Native American and Mexican, comments that the land belonged to his ancestors until the army took it away, and now the banks are taking it away from the people who stole it 150 years ago.

What does this movie teach about storytelling? With a parallel structure like this, you need to spend enough time at the beginning of each storyline to let the reader get to know and care about the characters. The movie alternates between the two viewpoints, giving more screen time to the brothers early on and more to the rangers towards the end. Give the reader a chance to breathe: the action in the movie could have been relentless, but it takes breaks for banter between the rangers, a funny scene with a steakhouse waitress, and a playful scene with the two brothers roughhousing against the sunset. You can make your messages blatant, like the main plot about how the bank was ripping off Toby’s mother, or subtle, like what really happens when just about everybody is carrying a gun (people are more likely to get shot, and there’s always someone with a more powerful weapon than everyone else).

Up next: Hidden Figures tomorrow, then Manchester by the Sea on Wednesday, and finally Arrival on Thursday.

Storytelling in movies -La La Land and Fences

Continuing my quest to learn what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, thanks to Harkins Theatres’ film series.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

La La Land 

Very different synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail piano gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

IMDB is short and sweet:

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Honestly, who writes these things?

La La Land is a musical, and I knew from the previews that it does homage to many classic movies and movie musical tropes, so I wasn’t sure if my list of questions about characters, plot, pace, and emotions would exactly work for it. I went in with an open mind.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The movie opens with a musical number in a traffic jam on the freeway, and we don’t see the romantic leads till the horns start honking and the cars start to move. We follow Mia, who runs into Sebastian two or three times during the day, and then backtrack to follow Sebastian through the same day. It’s a while before we really begin to see the two of them as individuals; at first, they’re just romantic leads in a musical, and that’s okay. We’re predisposed to like them because, well, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and because we’ve seen movie musicals before. There’s an engaging early scene where Mia auditions for a part and emotes up a storm while people are taking phone calls and ordering lunch.

The plot arc follows the standard movie musical structure for the most part, but it has some surprises. A fantasy sequence of music and dance, no dialogue, shows what could have been if things had gone differently.

Music is hugely important in this movie, naturally. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who venerates the old stuff, but gets sidetracked for a while in a successful band that leans to pop and electronics. Music and dance is what brings Mia and Sebastian together, and the quiet song they sing together is the theme of their romance. One of the best scenes in the movie is an audition where Mia sings, unaccompanied and surrounded by darkness, about her aunt who lived in Paris.

What does this movie teach about writing? Write your own story, do your own art. At one point, Sebastian is giving up his dream of opening a classic jazz club, because people don’t like the music anymore. Mia tells him that people will love it because of his passion; people love what other people are passionate about. Use shortcuts, like the tried and true tropes in this movie that made it unnecessary to spell everything out for the audience – know what the reader will assume or figure out on their own, and trust them to do it. And don’t worry too much about loose ends – if you dazzle people with the main story, they won’t care that Sebastian’s sister shows up for a scene early on and is never heard from again.

Fences

Metacritic:

In this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, an African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.

IMDB:

A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s a reason Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are nominated for Oscars and have already won other awards for their performances in this movie. They, along with everyone else in the cast, including a 6-year-old girl, are perfection.

It’s easy to imagine this one as a play. Almost all the scenes take place in the back yard or the kitchen of Troy and Rose’s Pittsburgh house. It’s all dialogue, too. Smart, fast, emotional, true. That Pulitzer is well deserved.

The opening scene introduces us to the main character, a garbageman, who banters with his partner and complains about the policy that only lets white employees work as drivers. We gradually learn more about him as the movie goes on, and also about his wife and son. By the end of the movie, we’re – okay, I’m – heartbroken over the things he’s done to them, but also heartbroken on his behalf.

This is what the movie does best. Troy is smart and charismatic and hardworking and responsible, but he’s also selfish – everyone else is a bit player in his life, seems to be his view – and hot tempered. Rose can sometimes get him to do the right thing, like loan ten dollars to the son from another mother who stops by on Friday nights, but not always. She’s unable to get him to see the college football recruiter who wants to sign up their son, and Troy deliberately sabotages his son’s chances out of what might be pique over a minor lie or, more likely, jealousy, since his own chance at playing pro baseball was spoiled. Early on, it seems racism killed his baseball chances, but later we learn that he spent 15 years in prison and was too old to play when he got out.

And by the end of the movie, Troy has betrayed Rose and kicked their son out of the house – a house we’ve learned he only obtained through the money paid to his brother for a World War Two injury that left him brain damaged – and yet – we’re still sympathetic to the character. We see all the worst aspects of him, but we also understand how his own father’s sins have affected him, and we see how he’s overcome at least part of that heritage.

What can I learn about writing from this movie? If I could analyze how it achieves what it does with Troy, I’d be a much better writer than I am. The playwright, August Wilson, was a poet who died in 2005 at age 60, and Fences is part of his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle. I read a bit of an interview with Wilson about his approach to writing, and he said, essentially, he just starts with a line of dialogue, and follows where it leads; he learns about his characters through what they say. Another commenter notes how you keep seeing different aspects of his characters. I guess the lesson is to follow your own instincts, keep digging deeper into your characters, and show who they are through their words and actions; trust your readers to see beyond the surface.

August Wilson was a prominent playwright and there are lots of articles, books, and YouTube interviews available on the web. Once I’m finished with this film series, I want to read more about him and read his plays.

Next up: Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water.