Category: learning (Page 1 of 2)

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

Coronavirus: A Rant

NIAID / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Crises tell you who people really are. How people react to danger, whether that be a bully looking for a fistfight or a pandemic, cuts through the bullshit of someone’s personality and defines, clearly, who they actually are in their heart, whether that be a cowardly or brave, selfish or selfless.

This coronavirus pandemic has shown a lot of people for who they are. And unfortunately, lots of those people are uninformed, selfish, and uncaring.

Most of the discourse I’ve seen floating around my social media, from people I grew up with and people I met relatively recently but consider friends, revolves around whether or not masks are an infringement on our rights and if social distancing and lockdown measures have been effective. To be honest, I’m making the arguments sound more intellectual than they are, because most of the people posting about not wanting to wear a mask or be locked down are simply whining. Some, though, have tried to rationalize their bitching with false equivalences, cherry-picked statistics, and stubborn ignorance.

I could spend hours doing research, arguing based on my understanding of the facts and statistics, but in reality the core dilemma is simple to me: Do you care about others or not? Because if you do, who gives a fuck if masks are even only 1% effective? That’s still a 1% better chance to protect someone else.

Therein lies the rub for most people. They’re not thinking about protecting others. To them, the cost-benefit analysis begins and ends with them. “A mask won’t protect me from getting the virus,” they say, “So I won’t wear one.” This thinking completely misses the point.

To live in a society (as we do), we all adhere to a social contract. Traditionally, this contract defines the agreement individuals have with the government, i.e. the trade-off between giving up some rights in order to protect other rights. It’s why we pay taxes that go toward police, schools, and hospitals that are available to everyone and not reserved for only certain subsets of society. (I recognize this is a point to quibble with, as these things are not equally distributed depending on your race and poverty level. Regardless, while access is unequal there is still some access for everyone, as per the social contract.)

However, I’d argue that this contract extends between everyone in order to afford us all greater protections. For society to function in a way that benefits the most people we all agree to give up minor freedoms or tolerate minor inconveniences for the greater good. We stand in lines at the grocery store because it’s more efficient for everyone to do so, than to constantly be jockeying for position and fighting for space. In major cities we stand on the right side of the escalator so people in a hurry can walk up the left. We make these small concessions (some might call them considerations) to make everyone’s lives a bit easier.

In 2017 an article written for the Huffington post went viral. Titled, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People,” it was a reaction to the tax cuts proposed by the Trump Administration, but the core tenet of the piece is still applicable: If you don’t have the capacity for basic empathy, there is no sense in debating facts and figures.

Facemasks and social distancing are meant to protect others. Just as food stamps and universal healthcare protect others. Just as road maintenance and buses allows others to travel. Just because something exists in the world that isn’t meant solely for you doesn’t mean it’s without value.

To understand that, you must have empathy. You must be selfless. Most of us aren’t.

Evolution of Exposition

I watched John Carpenter’s Escape From New York for the first time earlier today and the way the plot is set-up got me thinking about how contemporary screenwriters/filmmakers handle exposition as opposed to even 30 years ago. The first few minutes of Escape From New York are dedicated solely to explanation of the concept; In the near future Manhattan is turned into a high-security prison that houses every dangerous criminal in America. A wall has been erected around the city to keep them all in.

This is typical, and somewhat necessary. But what happens next is something I don’t think we’d see today. Basically, the story just drops us into the middle of everything. Snake Plissken is just being arraigned for robbery (although we never see him when he’s not a criminal) and for some reason Air Force One is already in the middle of a hijacking and the President is put into an escape pod and sent into the Manhattan Prison.

If this were remade, or were first coming out today, I can’t help but think that the audience would demand to see Plissken before he was a criminal – perhaps meeting him as he robbed the bank (which I read was in an early draft of the script) or even in his former life as a soldier. We would have had several minutes of the President on Air Force One discussing the important summit he was going to with China and Russia before the plane was hijacked in a clearly explained manner. And we wouldn’t have gotten to the Presidents eventual kidnapping by the most powerful gang in Manhattan until around the hour mark.

Why is this? I think because audiences are so much more discerning today than years before. They expect films to be a closed-loop and for everything to pay off within the two-hour timeframe unless they’re watching a franchise film. I don’t think there is a right way or long way, although I lean toward explaining everything I can.

In fact, I think leaving things unexplained is a viable storytelling technique if used properly. The advantage Escape From New York has is its high concept and forward motion. It whisks you along on its ride and you find yourself not really caring why the plane was hijacked in the first place, or what type of person Snake Plissken is, or why he is so recognizable to all of the criminals in Manhattan. None of that really matters to the story the movie is trying to tell, so it’s not talked about.

This will lead to a tight, fast-paced script. If you’re writing an action/thriller like Escape From New York this might be more important than character and plot. The audience wants a ride so the trade-off is a lack of depth and insight to the story. Not a bad thing.

But the mystery this creates can also be an advantage. We only learn enough of Snake to understand why he’s the man for this job. And this mysteriousness adds to his persona. We have a sense of what he’s capable of, we see it in action, but there is an unpredictability to not knowing who he is or why he ended up a criminal that is enticing and adds drama to every scene. Simply put, we never really know what he’s going to do or why. The same can be said of the villain in the film, Isaac Hayes’ Duke.

There are lessons to be learned in studying the way audiences have changed and bringing back outdated techniques to writing. I’m excited to try the art of withholding information one day.

Procrastination

It’s a well known fact that writers procrastinate. Like, a lot. It comes with the territory. But recently I’ve been wondering why I, specifically, procrastinate. Is it the fear of a blank page? Difficulty settling into a groove in which to write my magnificent prose? Or something else entirely?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Megan McArdle writes:

As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

This is true, and the true writers among us (those who are successful, say) may be the type of people she describes in her article thusly:

… the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at… For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors. 

 She makes a lot of interesting points in her article, and goes on to discuss the culture the Millenial Generation has grown up in which takes her to the increasing difficulty with which we (Millenials) deal with failure. Those things are not what I want to talk about.

For me, I’m not sure it’s the fear of failure that makes me procrastinate. That fear is definitely there (as evidence by all the posts I title “Notes on Rejection”) but I don’t actively consider it when I’m writing. I expect what I write to be crap. That’s why revision is so important. Of course, I’m 27 years old and there was a point in time when I wondered why I had such a hard time writing as well as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bradbury, or McCarthy. It took me a long time to realize that A.) I shouldn’t try to write as well as them, I should only try to write as well as I could and B.) It takes a lot of effort to write well, and I wasn’t putting that in.

Yet, despite having these realizations, I still procrastinate. For example, I’m procrastinating right now. Why?

It’s easier. I know I just talked about putting in the effort, but this is a bit deeper. Writing is very much like juggling. Except instead of three balls – which is difficult enough – you’re juggling two flaming chainsaws and a puppy while herding cats. It can be a lot to keep track of, a big mess if you make too many mistakes, and the initial glance at the task can be overwhelming. You have to keep track of characters, plots and subplots, MacGuffins, styles and formats, all sorts of things that lead to a story. It’s not all immediately important, as there will always be revisions to play with it, but sometimes to sit down and immerse yourself in the chaos of the world you’re building is too intimidating to do. It’s easier to write a stream-of-consciousness blog post, or clean, or just watch/read a story that’s already completed.

That’s what scares me more than failure, more than not writing well enough, it’s putting so much time and effort into something I care deeply about only to mess it up and have to try to patch it together again. It’s related to fearing I’m not good enough, I suppose, but not in the sense that I’m comparing myself to those great writers of antiquity.

Simply put, writing is hard work that is very easy to mess up and create more work. And oh so tiring. What to do about that? I think the only thing any writer can do when faced with such a situation is the one thing all writers can do when faced with any situation – continue to write. Power through it. Try your best. Prepare accordingly. It will turn out alright in the end.

I guess I should take my own advice and get back to the story I’m writing. Where was I?

What Makes Good Dialogue?

No, seriously. I have no fucking idea.

I wrote the above sentence a few weeks ago, when I first decided to write this post exploring what I think it might be. As you may recall, for those devilishly handsome and/or exceedingly beautiful readers who read my post on the negative review I received for The Inhabitors, I got dinged hard on my dialogue because it felt “… forced and unnatural,” like the “… lines seem to be set down simply to push the story forward or tell the reader what’s happening, not to create depth or dimension or build character in any way.”

So, judging by the opinion of that person, dialogue seems to be a way to build character. However, most traditional screenwriting resources also say that dialogue should also, if not shading characters, push the story forward. I seem to have fallen too far on the side of pushing the story forward with my dialogue for The Inhabitors.

Now that I’m a few weeks removed from that review, and I’ve done a bunch of reading, writing, and slowly worked a revision, I have a few ideas as to what makes good dialogue. I think the best advice I’ve heard when it comes to dialogue is that it should sound like the way people talk if they had time to think about what they wanted to say. I don’t remember who said that (I thought it was Raymond Chandler, but I can’t find it attributed to him), but it struck me as a good starting point.

After finding a way to get your characters to speak in a way that sound natural, but is also eloquent and concise (within the realm of the story) it’s time to throw all of that out and add texture. The texture I’m talking about is subtext, memory, and motivation. The best examples I’ve read/heard of dialogue has always been filled with these three things. Characters, like people in everyday life, should talk around topics and only confront them head-on when they’re forced to. People keep secrets. The way they talk about events is dictated by the things they remember about those events. The way someone approaches a subject, especially an important one, is based on what they hope to gain from the conversation. Should they be blunt or flattering? Is option A not working so they switch gears and try option B? All of these things should come into play when writing dialogue.

There can be more to it, of course. Understanding your characters background (geographically, economically, demographically, etc.) can go a long way toward getting a sense of how they talk. Relationships also play a strong role in how characters speak to one another. Are they comfortable with whom they’re speaking with? Just met? Close friends? It all determines what information they will give this other character and how they’re going to give it.

A good example of this is Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ latest. We find out partway through the film that Llewyn’s old music partner killed himself. Later, Llewyn is trying to make a name for himself as a solo act and performs for someone he hopes will become his manager. When he finished the guy tells him he doesn’t see any money in his act, but would be willing to bring him into a band he’s putting together. Llewyn responds that he had a partner once and that it didn’t work out. The scene ends with the manager telling Llewyn it would be a good idea for him to get back together with that partner. Llewyn simply pauses and say, “That’s good advice. Thanks.”

The beauty of this exchange lies in what isn’t said. Of course Llewyn wouldn’t tell a stranger who just rejected him why getting together with his old partner is impossible. Not only would it be a sob story, but Llewyn doesn’t know him. Secondly, the audience doesn’t need that information to understand the subtext behind Llewyn’s rejection of the managers suggestions. We already know his bandmate killed himself and Llewyn won’t perform with anyone else. We also know how painful the reminder is for Llewyn that his partner is gone. In other words, it nails all three of the criteria I think makes good dialogue: subtext, memory, motivation.

I’m still learning how to write strong dialogue. It takes me a lot of thought and effort to write something honest and eloquent. But reading and watching films with good dialogue have helped. Hopefully I can apply those lessons to my own writing.

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