Category: storytelling (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.

Taradiddle and Profundity

Pictured: Me, an intellectual.

My coworker taught me a word that I worry may describe my writing: Taradiddle. Taradiddle has two definitions:

  1. a small lie; fib
  2. pretentious nonsense

You can probably guess which definition my work, and maybe my whole personality, falls under. I imagine someone picking up something I’ve written and saying, to use it in a sentence, “This story is a whole lot of taradiddle. This poor author’s perspective is all catawampus, bless his heart.” (Catawampus is another word taught to me by a coworker, which is how I know to say “bless your heart” afterward.)

See, I’ve got ideas, man, and those ideas feel big. Ideas about things as abstract as the nature of time and what justice is to an uncaring, ambivalent universe. And ideas about things as concrete as (in)equality of all kinds and the role government plays in our lives. Things I’ve studied and thought about and have questions that aren’t easily answered. But as I’m writing I always wonder why the fuck anyone would care about my thoughts on these things?

I’m a straight white guy. My perspective is that of a straight white guy. Is that perspective really one the world needs more of? I’m not an expert in anything in particular (at least, not anything of interest to anyone–even me), so even with the best research I’m capable of my approach to any specific topic isn’t likely to be the most informed.

But most authors aren’t necessarily writing about topics in which they’re experts. Stephen King and Chuck Wendig weren’t infectious disease experts when they wrote The Stand and Wanderers. J.K. Rowling didn’t practice magic as a young boy–she’s only slightly magical and has never been a young boy. Still, these authors wrote affecting, profound stories around these topics.

Maybe it comes down to having the confidence in your craft and ability to communicate some sort of truth even if the facts aren’t totally on point. Profundity isn’t necessarily complexity. It as much truth to say that being heartbroken is a painful shared experience as it is to explain the mechanics of orbital gravity and how that affects the tides. What matters, then, is the emotional connection author makes with reader and how those truths are communicated in a way that is felt. Perhaps it’s as much about relating to one another through story as it is about the explanation of ideas. In that sense, our A/S/L (those over college-age might get that) or expertise doesn’t matter so much.

Despite my worry of spewing taradiddle or coming off as pseudo-intellectual (which, let’s be honest, is probably exactly what I am), the aim is for a connection and not to be seen as an authority on anything specific. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to consider anyone an authority about anything they haven’t dedicated their lives to. That’s how we get appeals to false authority and experts in one field falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect when discussing another, perhaps related, field. That’s how misinformation spreads.

So I’ll continue to write potential taradiddle as I explore these ideas and try to answer the questions that vex me. The hope, then, is that my taradiddle connects with people on an emotional level, if not an intellectual one.

The Problem with Interconnectedness

Have you guys seen this bullshit? Granted, the source doesn’t have the best track record of accuracy and these rumors have already been denied by people involved in the production. However, we do know from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer that the new Shredder is somehow connected to April O’Neill’s father, who is connected to the creation of the Ninja Turtles. Even this, in my estimation, is a bit too much.

It seems to me (not that I’m an expert or anything) that there has been a trend recently to up the emotional stakes in a film by unnecessarily connecting characters. All of the protagonists and antagonists have to be deeply connected in some way – whether the villain is created as a direct result of the hero (Batman [1989], The Incredibles, Iron Man 1 and 3), or the characters are all related in some way like with the new Ninja Turtles. I’ve touched on similar problems before and it all has to do with a main character being too important. When everything is connected too neatly it makes the world of the story seem smaller. It narrows the focus and, by extension, removes spontaneity. That’s right, I’m insinuating that by connecting characters and events in a story you’re adding an element of fate that makes your story predictable and, therefore and hitherto, less exciting.

I’m struggling with this problem right now with my latest story. It takes place in 1823 in the aftermath of several wars and skirmishes between American settlers and Native Americans. The setting is a town in the unorganized territories that is home to a cast of characters that have ended up there because they have no place else to go. Each of these characters has been affected by the wars and skirmishes in some way and are trying to move past it. Now, if I just stopped there it wouldn’t be overkill. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable backdrop for a group of characters to be connected in some way, especially in that time period when travel was harder and the entire country was going through a transitionary period. But I didn’t stop there, and that’s where I’ve begun to wonder if it’s gone too far.

A drifter arrives in town that also shares scars from the wars. However, he is also directly responsible for the scars of several other members of the town because of his involvement in the wars. Is this too much? Does the story need that added coincidence to be emotionally fulfilling? Will the audience accept the connectedness of these characters but only to a point? Or, perhaps the most important question, if there is an element of spontaneity introduced via a character or event that isn’t connected will that tip the scales back in the right direction?

I think it’s hard to know without the full context of story. It also depends on theme. Some stories are predicated on coincidence and fate. Others thrive on randomness. The needs of the story should dictate how connected your characters are, how small the world is. And the emotional stakes should flow from the characters and their problems directly, not through a manufactured connectedness. It’s cheating and it’s lazy.

And hopefully Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hasn’t fallen prey to it.

The Passing of Time in Stories

Something I am unhealthily obsessed with in my screenplays is how time passes for the characters within the story. To be honest, I’m not sure how important a consideration time is for most stories (unless a time limit is built into them), but I can never stop myself from wondering: How much time passes over the course of the script?

The Time Bubble used a device that was necessary for me to understand how much time passed. The main character, Mitch, is trying to get back home before his girlfriend is murdered on a certain date in the past. He knows the date, but due to the way time travel works in my narrative he can only get to her before her murder – if he gets there after he will not be able to try again. I plotted out important dates for Mitch, all leading to the day he needs to get back to. This was important for me to understand in the story, as I couldn’t let too much time pass or the audience would begin to wonder why Mitch hasn’t gotten closer to his goal. I even used it to my advantage in the third act as a misdirection, where Mitch is thrown in jail for an indeterminate amount of time and is led to believe by the authorities that he’s missed his window of opportunity.

In The Inhabitors, the time frame seemed less important so I didn’t map it. However, due to the arcs of the characters (one, in particular), I wondered if I should. Will the audience call bullshit if a character has such a dramatic change over what might amount to a week of in-story time? Will they even notice if the timing of events is never explicitly called out? As a reader or a viewer we are conditioned, thanks to editing, that movies only show the major events in the story. We don’t watch the characters sleep or take shits. It’s unnecessary. So, in that sense, because the audience is accustomed to only seeing major events within the story they will either A.) not notice how much time has passed unless it is important to the story or B.) assume, based on the actions of the characters, the changes in setting, and other subtle hints, that a certain amount of time has passed regardless of whether or not the screenwriter meant them to think that.

As a viewer, I tend to lean toward playing it safe with timing. I was watching Beverly Hills Cop earlier and there was a scene when Axel Foley is in the Beverly Hills Police Station after causing havok throughout the city. Over the past 15-20 minutes of screentime we’ve seen him stake out a house, lose a police tail, start a fight at a fancy restaurant, get arrested, and be released. He is given a police escort and told to go back to Detroit. As they walk out of the police station, where Foley was brought after being arrested, it’s day. Mid-day, even. And he remarks about the things he did “that morning.” Now, as a viewer I found myself thinking, “All that happened in less than half a day?” Actually, I think the rest of the movie happens before nightfall. It’s not unrealistic, lots of things can happen in a short amount of time, but I did find myself thinking about it during the movie which meant I wasn’t giving the film my full attention. This is bad.

Peripheral, my latest, has a similar but opposite problem. The time frame is revealed, but not until the end of the script. I’m worried a reader or audience will say, “All of that happened in that amount of time?” Again, though, the timeline fits the story. So does it matter? In this case, I’d argue not.

I think being cognizant of the timeframe that passes in your story is important if it’s central to the story. If it’s not central to the story, it’s not as important to explicitly call it out, but one should still be cognizant of it if there is too much happening in a short amount of screentime. If half of the action in your story takes place within one day, consider spacing it apart or letting the audience in on just how much time has passed. I probably would have been more forgiving of Beverly Hills Cop if it had even been nightfall by the end of the film.

How to Figure Out the Story

OK, so you have an idea for this awesome scene where a guy saves a child and her puppy from a burning orphanage. And the guy is a former NAVY Seal who has PTSD. Good stuff, right?

But that’s just a scene, not a story. So now what? What happens next?

This is a problem I face every single time I start a new script. I’m facing it right now, as I work on a Western I’ve been excited about for a long time. I have an inciting event, a great setting, some interesting characters, but no real story to speak of. I thought I had a story, just like I thought I had a story with The Inhabitors, but it’s rapidly changing as I outline my characters and work to get in their heads. By finding common threads between them, seeing how they relate to one another and the world around them, the story I initially wanted to tell has slowly been changing into something else. Something deeper.

In this case I had a theme I was interested in exploring, and a timeframe and setting that played into that theme. The trick, then, was developing conflicts that played into the theme through the characters experiences, flaws, and morals. However, this still isn’t a story. But it’s the beginnings of one.

Now that I’ve developed my characters and their baggage, I can start to develop the story by focusing on one as our protagonist. His arc is a natural beginning and end. Then, I take the other characters, including who I want to be the antagonist, and put them into situations where they interact – whether that be via conflict or where they’re forced to work together for a common goal. The story comes organically from that.

This isn’t the only way to craft a story. In that past I’ve created outlines that map beat-by-beat how the story should play out. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to approach it, but I’ve found that I prefer to focus more on characters and let them lead me to where they want to go. There will be course corrections, and sometimes (as was the case with Peripheral) I push the characters too far one way where they’re not really the characters I wanted them to be, but it’s all a part of learning the story as you go for the first draft.

That’s all this is, doing preparation for the first draft. Because the second, third, fourth, and fifth-through-one-hundreth drafts are where the story really takes shape.

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