Apr 23, 2013
Leslie’s Lehr’s What A Mother Knows gives me a wonderful opportunity to talk about story in the novel. I saw this book develop through every step of the rewriting process. So I can give you a close-up view of how this novelist crafted a successful work of fiction in today’s competitive marketplace.
What A Mother Knows opens literally with a bang: main character Michelle Mason is in a car crash that kills her passenger and puts her in a coma. When she awakes, she has lost a good part of her memory, and her 16-year-old daughter has disappeared. As she looks for the missing girl, she must confront the crucial question: how far would you go to protect your child? The answer to that question comes in an ending that is both shocking and totally justified.
Any piece of fiction is the product of literally hundreds of structural decisions that will make or break the final novel. In What A Mother Knows, the biggest decision of the entire writing process was shifting from an overall story structure and genre that didn’t work to a structure and genre that did. Lehr’s first version of the book was a drama structured with an advanced crosscut between two different story lines in time. This is the structure you would use if you were trying to write what’s known as “literary fiction,” since it allows you to play with two of the three keys of advanced novel, time and point of view.
But Lehr realized that this wouldn’t do, because a slow crosscutting comparison couldn’t sustain a narrative line. As she said, “so much felt dark and internal, and it placed too much pressure on the reader to connect the details.”
Lehr knew that the single biggest element in popular fiction today is narrative drive. So she shifted structures to one of the strongest of all storylines: the detective-thriller. Now the personal drama and the complex moral challenge inherent to her story would have plenty of narrative drive to rush it along and create maximum suspense.
The main technique Lehr used to make this new structure work was to base her thriller on something deeply personal, a mother’s love for her child. Structure forms like thriller and personal drama seem like opposites, but they can be mutually beneficial. This is the same technique Stephen King uses when he builds his horror stories on regular families. The technique is to construct a thriller on top of the real, identifiable feelings of the average person. Thriller gives the drama excitement and plot. Drama gives the thriller a solid base of deep feelings. Done right, it’s an unbeatable combination.
The third genre in the story blend in What A Mother Knows is romance. Love is not only a natural experience for this main character, it is deeply embedded in her character change. Character change should always guide the plot. And in What A Mother Knows, romance is part of Michelle’s rejuvenation, the true endpoint of her search.
Another major structure decision Lehr made was to extend the mother’s search outside of the city. The city is the classic detective arena. But this mother- detective covers the entire breadth of the United States.
Structurally, what Lehr is doing is extending the detective line out to the myth arena. This is hard to do. But the reason for doing it, indeed why it has to be done, goes back to the fundamental question of the novel: how far a mother will go to save her child. Turns out this mother will go very far.
The main challenge in extending the physical boundaries of the hero’s quest is the risk of losing narrative drive. You have to have complex story work to literally drive a story that far, and the story has to build. In the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, I talk a lot about the all-important technique of the vortex. Vortex is where we set up a funnel pointing to the final battle, and this funnel not only creates a convergence of all characters and actions, it interweaves all the genres into a single powerful line.
Sure enough, as the story moves toward the powerful climax, Lehr connects and builds both the detective and the romance lines. When these lines crest near the end, Lehr’s decision to extend the physical search, to go for the larger scope, ultimately pays off with a bigger ending.
Another key decision that intensified the ending was when Lehr chose to give her hero moral, as well as psychological, flaws. Not only does this make for a better story, it also prevents critics from labeling and dismissing the book as “chick lit.” This isn’t just about a woman’s emotional attachment to her child, which however valid is still totally within a woman’s world. The story is also about the central moral issue of being a parent.
Lehr tracks the moral argument of the story from the opening scene. Michelle is driving and her passenger, someone’s child, gets killed. Notice the moral line is based on the same deeply personal love of a mother for her child. And that means the ending pays off not only the plot line but also the moral line. That’s good writing.
Interestingly, the final scene – in my opinion the best scene in the book – has remained largely unchanged through the entire writing and editing process. This is one of the benefits of knowing your ending at the beginning of the writing process. And having a final scene this good makes a big difference if you want your novel to be popular as well as good.
I hope you will read What A Mother Knows, because it shows the unique pleasures that come from story in the novel. And for all you novelists out there, this book will show you all kinds of techniques for succeeding in the incredibly competitive world of fiction writing today.
Mar 26, 2013
Feb 25, 2013
The same night it won the Golden Globes for Best Sitcom, Girls premiered the first episode of its second season on HBO. That episode perfectly encapsulated the strengths of this unique television comedy, but also the costs.
The biggest strength of Girls is that it purposely breaks the sitcom form. Transcending the genre is one of the main strategies in present-day screenwriting. It is also a great strategy for sitcoms, because you can give the audience the pleasures of the form while also standing out from the crowd.
TV is all about the characters we return to every week. So to see how Girls really works, and how it transcends the sitcom form, we have to begin by looking at the character web of the show. Girls sets up the character web using the technique I call “4-point opposition” (see the Sitcom Audio Class for details), which is the structural foundation of the classic sitcom. With 4-point opposition, you have a minimum of four central characters, each distinctly different from the others. All stories and comedy come from the various interactions of these four characters.
Where Girls twists the normal 4-point opposition is in how it differentiates the characters, and most especially in how it defines their character flaws. Traditional sitcom characters have one trait by which they can quickly be labeled comically, such as the innocent, or the raunchy one. They also have one weakness, which is relatively mild and almost always strictly psychological. A popular sitcom like 2 Broke Girls isn’t about exploring complex characters. It’s about placing two characters with an easily recognized comic shtick in some kind of trouble every week and watching the unique way they get out.
Even a transcendent sitcom like Sex and the City, on which much of Girls is modeled, used a fairly simplistic 4-point opposition and character definition. Miranda was the smart professional, Samantha the sex kitten, Charlotte the pretty innocent. Only Carrie was a complete, complex character, and even she had no moral flaws, with the possible exception of her addiction to shoes (just think how many starving people all that money could have fed).
In contrast, the four main women on Girls have serious character flaws, both psychological and moral. These women are very self-centered, they make lots of mistakes, and they sleep with the wrong people. Sex for these women is very in-your-face, and often painfully pathetic.
The most obvious benefit to a more complex character definition/opposition is that it gives the audience a strong sense that this is probably what women in their early 20s are really doing. That’s followed immediately by the sense that we haven’t seen anywhere close to this kind of reality before. Sure I’ve always known intellectually that the traditional singles sitcom is a fantasy confection. But one episode of watching Girls made it jarringly obvious to me that all other depictions of young women in sitcoms have been simplistic fakes.
This greater “reality” does have its costs. The lead character of Hannah, played by the creator-writer-director of the show, Lena Dunham, seems to have an inordinate desire to shove her naked body in our faces. I for one feel that a little of that goes a long way. In fact, it has already gone way too far. I get that this is a stockier woman who is saying, “I have every right to be proud and honest about my body and my sexuality too.” And she’s more comfortable exposing her body than the classically beautiful Marnie is in showing hers. But it’s just not pleasant. Lena, darling, trust me. Tone it waaaay down.
Notice Hannah’s approach to sex is in sharp contrast to the lead character in Sex and the City. In the entire history of that show, Carrie never had a sex scene where she wasn’t wearing a bra, the whole time! I realize this may have been written into the actress’s contract. But the effect was still a 20s-30s woman, very forward in her thinking, who was extremely embarrassed about her body. To the point of making us doubt that the show was ever about sex and the city.
Another way that Girls structurally flips the normal sitcom form is in the way it handles the characters’ self-revelations, in other words, what they learn from their trials and tribulations. The normal sitcom character has few if any self-revelations. The conventional wisdom has always been: we can’t have the characters undergo any real change or growth, because that would destroy the setup and chemistry of the show.
These girls, especially Hannah, have self-revelations all the time. But their insights have the life of a flea. These girls are constantly analyzing themselves, as if they can make themselves grow up and have happy lives just by thinking about it. They make mistakes and are immediately aware of those mistakes, so they have this strange mix of being highly intelligent and clueless at the same time. Often the contrast is so extreme that it stretches credulity.
But it’s also a big advantage, because this mix not only defines their characters, it is the source of much of the comedy on the show. Notice the constant alternation between self-revelations and blunders is built into the characters from the beginning, in the way the show was originally constructed. And the original construction of a show determines everything that is possible as the show plays out its run.
In this vein, it’s instructive that the name of the show is Girls, not Women. That not only tells you the maturity level of these characters, it is a very conscious reference to the classic feminist line: “We are women, not girls.” These women are well past the feminist struggle of who they can be in a male-dominated society. They don’t even think about it. But they are still girls in how much they screw things up. They have little clue of how to be a woman.
A show with this kind of set-up gives the writers tremendous freedom to explore character and break out of the sitcom straightjacket. But it also creates some serious problems.
For one thing, these women can be deeply annoying. I actually prefer “unlikable” characters. Seinfeld showed us long ago that unlikable characters are more intriguing, especially over the long haul of a series, and are much funnier. But these women are so self-centered no one could stand to be with them for longer than 10 minutes.
But there’s a bigger problem that comes with such complex, self-aware characters: thin plot. The reason it’s called situation comedy is you put the heroes in a predicament and watch them struggle to get free. This predicament structure gives you maximum plot, not just for one episode but for a hundred episodes over many seasons.
In contrast, the girls in Girls are so self-conscious, navel gazing to the point of stupidity, that they don’t tell much of a story. They don’t do anything. For this show to not only last but also to grow, the writers have to create comedy from the contradictions of the characters and from the surprises of the plot.
The people who like this show may not care for “more” plot. They and the show’s creator might argue that they are not interested in the big, predicament plots of most sitcoms. These are plots of living everyday, of becoming adult women with the help, and sometimes the hindrance, of your best friends. And that feels real and satisfying.
But I’m not arguing for that kind of traditional sitcom plot. I think the future path for this show, which the writers have already begun to explore, lies in the moral flaws of the characters. One of the best scenes of last season was a blowout argument between Hannah and Marnie over who was more selfish and who was the better friend.
If the writers can find the right blend between psychological flaws and moral dilemmas, so surprising plot comes from complex characters, this show will be winning awards for a long time to come.
Jan 29, 2013
|Here are some of my thoughts on this year’s Best Screenplay Oscar nominees. I’d love to hear your thoughts too. So please add your comments at the end of the article and let’s get a great discussion going.|
Silver Linings Playbook
All stories concerning mental illness require some kind of cheat. If the hero is truly mentally ill, he is compelled to act a certain way. Hopefully his doctor can find a drug that can control it, because with a lot of mental illness we are not in the realm of choice and will power. But that’s not dramatic, and it’s not funny.
If you can’t accept this cheat you may have trouble enjoying Silver Linings Playbook. The lead character, Pat, clearly has a mental illness at the beginning of the story. But through the love of a good (but also troubled) woman, he not only overcomes his illness, he matures at the end. Putting aside the reality of this change, the way Pat gets there is beautifully written, and is one of my two favorites for winning Best Adaptation.
|Silver Linings Playbook is a rare example of a transcendent romantic comedy. Yes, it hits all the story beats of this highly choreographed form, as it must. But what really sets it apart is that it also twists every beat in a unique way. This allows Silver Linings Playbook to overcome the predictability of the romantic comedy form, an almost impossible feat for a writer to accomplish in this day and age.|
I also have to mention the wonderful scene work and dialogue in this film. The scene where Tiffany makes the case to Pat’s father that she is in fact good luck for all of them is an instant classic, and worth careful study for anyone trying to master the screenwriter’s craft.
My other favorite for wining Best Adaptation is Argo. I’ve written a review of this film already. But let me say here that writer Chris Terrio has pulled off the difficult task of combining the True Story genre with Thriller and Action to produce a real knockout punch of a film.
Let me be clear. The craft in this script does not come from transcending the main genre. As a couple of readers of my in-depth review accurately pointed out, the hero has no moral flaw and only the barest psychological weakness. Because of this unique story, I don’t believe that the lack of a serous character weakness is a big story problem inArgo. But it does keep the film from hitting the pinnacle of artistic success.
So where does the quality of this script come from, if not from transcending the form? It comes from the seamless way Argo combines genres that don’t normally go together. And it is a classic example of the screenwriter’s craft, of using the power of the cut in cinema to create an inexorable vortex hurtling the viewer forward at a faster and faster rate. This script is a crowd pleaser in the best sense of that term, and that feat should not be underestimated.
Life of Pi
I came to the film, Life of Pi, having already read the book, and though I liked it I was not a big fan. I loved the basic premise of the boy and the tiger together on a lifeboat, and found many of the incidents enjoyable. But the overall story for me was flat and episodic. Also, it did not make its thematic case for a God, in whatever form one wants to believe, nor did it make the case for the healing power of storytelling itself (something I fervently believe).
Given that, I was impressed that the screenwriter, David Magee, did as well as he did in translating this Personal Myth-Fantasy Memoir to the screen. Unfortunately, what I saw as the flaws in the original book remain. And I think Magee made a serious mistake in the way he handled the storyteller frame. In my Masterpiece class, I talk extensively about this powerful but difficult story tool. In Life of Pi, the storyteller frame does not lead to a new dramatic conclusion, and the constant return to the storyteller throughout the film makes the story seem even more episodic than it already is.
I’ve said in my more in-depth review that I believe Lincoln will win Best Adaptation, but I will be sad if it does. This film is rife with Oscar Disease, wherein the patient is horribly bloated, boring and believes he is doing God’s work among the Great Unlearned. Starting with the laughably phony and absurd opening scene, every scene in this film is at least twice as long as it should be. Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, if you are going to make me take my medicine for 2 1/2 hours, at least wrap it up in some sugar (that is, plot, artistic craft and subtle, non-preachy dialogue).
While I enjoyed this film the first time I saw it, I wasn’t blown away. Mostly that’s because the film is small, and I feel that children entering those unpleasant teenage years should be hidden in a closet until they have a coming out party at the age of 21. But when I saw Moonrise Kingdom a second time, I was able to see the incredible craftsmanship in this script.
This is a transcendent romantic comedy, which is tough enough to pull off (and now two in one year!). But the writers also add in terrific work on story world, namely the kind of Americana utopia found in such classics as Meet Me in St. Louis, You Can’t Take It with You and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. Moonrise Kingdom opens in the mini-utopia known as the “buzzing household.” But the flip is that this is an apparent utopia, because the wife is having an affair and the teenage daughter, the pretty princess I like to call “Perfume Girl,” is miserable.
We then jump to another mini-utopia, the perfectly organized, perfectly geometrical scout camp, home of “Nerd Scout.” But this too is an apparent utopia, because Nerd Scout is an outsider and wants to run away with Perfume Girl. With an approaching storm giving us a vortex (the same technique found in Argo), the writers twist every romantic comedy beat in a fresh and endearing way and converge on a literal cliffhanger.
We end with a new home and scout utopia, and the memory of the perfect moment and the only true utopia in the story, when the boy and girl created their Moonrise Kingdom by the bay.
If you don’t like your lead characters to be 12, this movie may not do much for you. But this script is sensational, and while it has no chance of winning in the Original category, it should.
Flight’s strength is that it’s an actor’s film, written with a big juicy starring role. A lead character that can attract a movie star is a big advantage in the Hollywood sweepstakes.
But Flight’s strength is also its first great weakness. The lead character is so dominant that the film is essentially one long monologue where Denzel Washington gets to strut his stuff. Now Denzel struts very well, but that doesn’t make for a good story.
When you wed the lead character’s dominance to a story about alcoholism, you end up with a predictable plot, a one-note character and a painfully obvious and false climax. You can probably tell I don’t think this script can or should win.
Django Unchained is a genre mash up that is quite enjoyable for about 2/3 of its very long running time. Writer Quentin Tarantino combines the spaghetti Western with Comedy, and adds in his usual funny and sometimes bizarre dialogue. The scene where the Klansmen complain that they can’t see though the eyeholes is hilarious.
But to see what’s really going on here, it’s important to look at Tarantino’s underlying story strategy in both this film and his previous film, Inglorious Basterds. Part of the reason Django became less enjoyable to me as it went on is that the fundamental sadism of the writer-director became overwhelming. Simply put, Tarantino seems to take extreme pleasure in finding creative new ways to maim, torture and kill people.
As his career has progressed, Tarantino has found the need to justify this sadism. So for him the question naturally arises: how do I create a story world where this extreme level of violence is not only acceptable, it’s necessary? Answer: create stories where the heroes fight two of the worst crimes against humanity in history, the Nazis and slavery. It’s win-win-win: Tarantino gets free reign to torture and kill to his heart’s content, the audience gets to feel good about taking revenge against all those evil people, and critics get to applaud Tarantino for his masterful take on the “big themes.”
Note to Quentin: please, please stop acting in your own movies. The moment you show up in this movie is the moment it officially ends.
Zero Dark Thirty
The hit against Zero Dark Thirty is not that the writer, Mark Boal, showed the CIA torturing victims. And if this script doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay, it won’t be because three U.S. Senators criticized it. It will be because the script’s not that good. I admit, I don’t get why critics love Boal’s scripts. I thought The Hurt Locker was one of the most over-rated films of that year, primarily because of the script. The writer is supposedly a fanatic about authenticity, but every person I know with military experience has said that film was so full of absurdities it was hard for them to watch it.
In Zero, Boal has set a bigger task for himself, bringing down Osama Bin Laden. In reality, this was a ten-year project that involved hundreds if not thousands of people. And that creates a story nightmare for the writer. His solution: structure the story on the desire line of one woman. Notice this gives a potentially sprawling story real focus and narrative drive. But the costs are high. This decision limits plot to the somewhat predictable actions of one person. It completely removes the possibility of character change, and even the importance of character itself; our hero is a cold, determined woman whose only change, or sign of humanity, is that she sheds a tear of relief when the whole thing is over. Oh, and did I mention, making this a one-woman job is absurd.
Whether you agree or disagree with my views and my choices, I hope this article gets you to look under the surface, to see the structural decisions these writers made in creating their scripts. Remember, it’s all about studying the pros so you can learn techniques that may result in one of your scripts being nominated for Best Screenplay.