Tag: storytelling

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.

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