Tag Archives: movies

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

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The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.

Becoming a Writer: “Whisper of the Heart”

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness")

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”)

Life demands and a lack of money have prevented me from going out to movies very often in the last couple of years. I had to end my Netflix subscription also a year ago in order to save money. I hadn’t realized how much I missed movies until a co-worker and I got into a conversation about the brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. We’re both dedicated fans of his work, and my co-worker offered to loan me an early movie that Miyazaki had done the screenplay and storyboards for and I’d not seen. All he’d say about it was that it was sweet and wonderful, more grounded in reality than Miyazaki’s later work but with touches of magic. I jumped at the opportunity to see a Miyazaki movie I hadn’t seen before.

DVD from Disney

DVD from Disney

In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku, a young teen, has reached the point when she’s begun to question the direction of her life and what her true talents are. She loves to read and her father works in a library which gives Shizuku easy access to lots of books. She notices that a boy, Seiji, has checked out all the books before her that she’s been reading. This strange fact sparks her curiosity and imagination. One day, as she’s on her way to the library on the train, a cat with one purple ear catches her attention. The cat jumps up onto the seat next to her and studiously ignores her attempts to befriend him.  When the cat gets off the train at her stop, she runs after him, follows him up hills to a lovely residential neighborhood. True to cat behavior, he continues to ignore Shizuku, but seems to point the way to an intriguing antique store where she meets the elderly owner and The Baron, a cat figurine.

By this point, I’m totally hooked into this story, especially as Shizuku keeps running into a mysterious boy, Seiji, who turns out to be the grandson of the antique store’s owner. I don’t want to give away too much of this gentle story revealing the emotional lives of creative teens and how they help, support, and inspire each other. What I want to review about this movie is how Miyazaki reveals the life of the creative artist, and what the creative process is really like.  For Shizuku is a budding writer, and Seiji a budding violin maker who can also play a mean violin.

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

How does someone become creative? More specifically, how does someone become a creative artist?  Every human being on this planet is creative in his or her own way.  For example, problem solving requires creativity and imagination. Relating to each other successfully takes a lot of imagination (for empathy) and creativity. But when it comes to art, this is when the human mind and imagination fuse to bring forth truths of existence in ways that stimulate the imaginations of the people who are experiencing the art. As Miyazaki has done with Whisper of the Heart.

I believe that we are each born to certain lives but we each have the choice of whether to fulfill those particular lives or do something else. My father, for example, loved music and art — he played the clarinet and painted oil pictures — but he chose not to fulfill that creative spark; instead he chose to pursue a job in financial services. He allowed the powerful influence of American society to pursue “business” and the making of money to squash whatever creative inclinations he had. Fortunately for me, he supported my creative pursuits from my first forays in elementary school, but only up to a point. He notoriously said to me when I announced my music major in college, “You can’t eat a piano,” and when I told him and my mother that I’d finally recognized my creative spirit in writing, he responded with the pithy, “Writers are prostitutes.”

Shizuku and the Baron

Shizuku and the Baron (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Which brings me to the crux of Whisper of the Heart. Being a creative artist is extremely difficult even in the best of times or most supportive of conditions. Other people — family, friends, as well as strangers — will pressure the artist to do something more “practical,” to not pursue creative expression, and this pressure can be incredibly strong, often hurtful, and constant. It takes power and a belief in the strength of the soul’s desire to be creative in spite of the pressure not to be. And then there are the self doubts. Both Shizuku and Seiji eloquently show and tell others their doubts about their abilities and talents. But they keep going because they must. And that need is inspired and supported and sustained by each other as well as Seiji’s grandfather. (Not to mention the cat with one purple ear and The Baron!)

My favorite moment in this movie (in addition to the moment Shizuku meets the cat)? It’s when, after Seiji’s grandfather has read her story and told her that it’s a wonderful raw gem that now needs cutting and polishing, Shizuku bursts into tears, wailing that she doesn’t know if she can do it.  Been there, done that!  Many times. So, Whisper of the Heart is not only Miyazaki’s homage to the creative process, but the moving story of a young writer discovering her imagination and the creative process in writing.

I loved this movie! (It’s now on my Amazon wish list.)  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creative process, in writing, in Japanese animation, or in the early work of Hayao Miyazaki to see how his creative expression was developing.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net

Harper Lee

Language and movies entered my life about the same time when I was a child.  I loved books and reading.  I loved stories.  Movies also were stories, magical and special in a darkened theater, preceded by funny cartoons.  My parents took us to adult movies if they thought the subject matter was important.  I remember that in one year, they took us to see Lawrence of Arabia (historical) and To Kill a Mockingbird (social history).  My response to both was instant love and a desire to read the books.  My father owned a first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he gave to me.  In the living room bookshelves, I found To Kill a Mockingbird and first learned the author’s name: Harper Lee.

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird book cover

The news last Friday of Harper Lee’s death brought back the first time I held her masterwork and the hours I spent reading it the first time.  Her prose evoked the South during a time unfamiliar to me and yet easy to visualize in my mind.  Over the years, I’ve learned more about Ms. Lee, facts that surprised me at times and facts that inspired me.  It pained me that she had stopped writing when she had shown so much talent in her first novel.  Her friendship with Truman Capote astonished me until I learned that they had met as children, and had been best buddies.  Her portrayal of Dill, the character in Mockingbird based on Capote, was loving and real.  I loved him as much as Scout, Jem, and Atticus.

I wanted to be Scout.  She was fearless in her own way and in her convictions.  She stood up for what she believed in.  And her father was Atticus Finch.  What a father!  Ms. Lee painted such a vivid picture of these characters and their lives, their interests and concerns.  All while confronting racism head on through the trial in which Atticus defended Tom Robinson.  I think now what truly resonates about the characters in this book is that each reader can probably recognize each character as someone he or she knows in his or her own life.

In Cold Blood book cover originalLater in Junior High, I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  This book fascinated me — a nonfiction story written using fiction techniques.  At the time, I didn’t know that Capote was Dill, or that Capote and Lee were good friends, or that she assisted him when he was researching his book.  It was a scary story, actually, written with an eerie power, putting the reader right inside the scene as if a participant.  I’ve read some short fiction by Capote since then, but nothing else.

In 2005 I saw the movie Capote, about Capote discovering the story and writing In Cold Blood.  That’s when I learned about the enduring friendship between Capote and Lee.  How sad she must have been when Capote died in 1984, a victim of liver disease most likely caused by his own excesses.  But I was also surprised by her loyalty to him despite the way he apparently treated her because of his narcissism.  She must have known him better than anyone else except perhaps Capote’s partner, Jack Dunphy.

Now, Ms. Lee has slipped away to literary Heaven — I can’t imagine her going anywhere else.  I’d like to think that she and Capote have reunited and are exchanging stories, getting caught up.

Photo credit: The Truman Capote Literary Trust via The New York Public Library

Photo credit: The Truman Capote Literary Trust via The New York Public Library

GONE GIRL: Unlikable Characters

book cover gone girlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn has a prominent place on my To Read list, but it’s on my computer and I find it harder to read books on my computer.  I much prefer a print book. (Irony: I published Perceval’s Secret as an e-book, not print.) But I recently viewed the movie of this novel starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and directed by David Fincher. It was a riveting movie, but challenging in a way I hadn’t expected.

The opening credits bothered me a lot because the visuals flashed by like a slide gone girl movie postershow at double or even triple time. I saw no good reason for this, and I was irritated for a while as the movie began. As the movie proceeded, I liked each of the characters less and less, even the supporting characters like the cops.  Where were the sympathetic characters?  Who was the viewer supposed to relate to, be emotionally invested in?

Whether a movie or a novel, a story stands or falls on its characters.  In anticipation of watching Gone Girl, I had expected to be sympathetic toward the Ben Affleck character more than the Rosamund Pike character, and that’s the way I felt at the beginning. His wife has disappeared under suspicious circumstances on their 5th anniversary.  But he acts distant and cool.

****SPOILER ALERT*****

As the story progresses, we learn that Affleck’s character has been unfaithful, that he has a bad temper and has been physically violent (or has he?) Neither of the narrators in this story is totally reliable.  It isn’t until the end that we find out just who is the physically violent one, but by that time, neither of the characters is sympathetic.  And it only darkens more.  I found the ending unsatisfying and far from inevitable.  It was a stretch to make it unresolved.  It was truly unsatisfying to make the cops, who had been smart and on top of everything up until the final act, then timid and back off what should have been an open door to further investigation.  Nothing the Affleck character had done in the previous 5 years could plausibly inspire the Pike’s character’s actions.  Clearly, the Pike character is far more unhinged psychologically than she appeared — and there were only minor clues to this earlier in the story such as her need to be in control.

Gone-Girl1 movie poster

Unreliable narrators are difficult to pull off.  One excellent example of a movie with an unreliable narrator is 1995’s The Usual Suspects. In this story, the writer and director play fair with the viewer, leaving clues to the narrator’s unreliability all along the way.  They also leave clues to the truth. That wasn’t at all the case with Gone Girl. The behavior of these two characters, Affleck’s and Pike’s, seemed as scripted and unnatural as it was.  I have to believe that these two actors tried their best to bring a real life to them, but I cannot say that they succeeded.  The last third of this movie left me alternately skeptical and shocked.  I would have loved a much smarter story in terms of human behavior, that’s for sure.

Unlikable characters do not need to be unsympathetic or unrelatable.  Many villains have captured the hearts and imaginations of movie viewers.  The crucial element for writers to remember is to make their unlikable characters human.  If the characters are not plausible as real humans, the writer will lose readers and viewers, and the characters will just be unlikable cutouts used to send a certain message or accomplish a certain action.  Human characters speak and act like the rest of us, and their behavior is recognizable, whether likable or not.