I used to take fiction workshops through UC Extension. I don’t know if they were quite worth the money I shelled out for them, but they did provide things of lasting value. First off, we were expected to submit our stories to be picked apart. That meant we had to write stories to submit, which made us real writers instead of people who just said they were.
Not all of the criticism was useful. There were some there who were primarily interested in their own work and any feedback you got from them was canned workshop-ese like “What’s at stake?” and “I want to know more” (OK, that’s what I was like). Some made an honest effort, but went wide of the mark (“Try making his tuxedo a color other than black so it doesn’t symbolize death”). Then there were the comments that were constructive and spot on, yet failed to resonate because my butthurt refused to yield the floor.
One observation that stuck with me came from the instructor who was running the show for at least a couple of the workshops I enrolled in. I can’t remember what story he was talking about, likely something borderline unreadable, but what he said was sage advice for anyone trying to tell a story. To paraphrase:
Think of a fairy tale. You start with “Once upon a time.” That provides the setting and introduces the characters, but the story doesn’t really start until you get to “And then one day.” You want to reach that point sooner rather than later.
What makes this point especially valid is that it alerts the writer to the reader, one who will likely grow impatient if nothing happens in the story. The action can be subdued and relaxed in pace, but it should kick in early. Otherwise, reading the story is about as enjoyable as looking at the “Mona Lisa” and waiting for her to blink.
It’s important not to oversimplify however. Not all stories are structured like fairy tales. In a lot of novels, you don’t get a single “Once upon a time” followed by an “And then one day.” Rather there can be several, early chapters introducing people and places that are unrelated at first until the progression of the plot brings them together. Stephen King’s The Stand is an example of this.
If you watch enough action movies, you’ll find cases where “Then one day” comes first, often preceding the opening opening credits. The “Once upon a time” comes after that. When a government functionary travels via helicopter to the protagonist’s cabin in the boonies and asks for his help, the initial response is going to be “I retired a long time ago” or words to that effect. Relying heavily on an audience who understands the archetypal disillusioned action hero, exposition is handled in a few simple words that also leaves the door open for a prequel. The audience also knows that a simple “Your daughter is on that plane” or somesuch will bring the hero out of retirement in a heartbeat.
In a lot of cases though, the old formula of introducing a character or characters then throwing a situation at them holds true. In these instances, you get the clearest view of the setup before the “And then one day” commences. When it comes to mainstream movies, I regret to say that the “Once upon a time” element is often contrived and phoned in.
This is not to get all book-snobbish and say that movies are an inherently inferior form of storytelling. There are times where the film ends up being a lot better than the novel it was based on. Psycho immediately comes to mind. And if you reverse the direction of adaption, you end up with novelizations, which are seldom if praised as being superior to the movie.
The issue I have with most blockbusters is that they need to appeal to the widest possible audience to recoup the money they spent making the thing and hopefully turn a nice profit. This alone isn’t the problem. Moviemaking is a business. I get that. It’s just that they’re apparently afraid (and perhaps rightfully so) that the kind of character that interests or amuses me will be box-office poison.
Let’s say you’re watching a movie and it’s a big-budget disaster flick about a giant blizzard that’s coming down from Canada. Market research predicts the flick will be hugely profitable because moviegoers, being the idiots they are, will use it to defend whatever side of the climate-change issue they happen to be on. Also the trailer shows cold-weather nipples.
The film has the usual cast of characters for the genre: military personnel, high-ranking government officials, an eccentric scientist, and some corporate scumbag looking to cash in on human misery. The main story however centers around a guy named Bob who lives in North Dakota. Much of the movie is dedicated to Bob and others fleeing south one step ahead of icy death.
So what kind of person is this Bob we’re supposed to be rooting for. He’s a devoted family man (natch), he teaches history at the local high school, and he likes both old Bob Seger songs and hot-air balloons. He’s well rounded and just the slightest bit quirky in a way that’s within everyone’s comfort zone.
Fuck that guy.
If I were watching that movie, I’d have a plotline running in my head parallel to what was happening onscreen. My main character would also be named Bob because I suck at coming up with names. My Bob wouldn’t be a schoolteacher though. He’d be a pig farmer and you’d better believe he likes to diddle his livestock.
So I’m watching Schoolteacher Bob driving to work. He has “Night Moves” playing on his car stereo and he sees a hot-air balloon off in the distance. This makes him smile, but he keeps his eyes on the road because he’s such a solid citizen and all. The song ends and Bob turns on the radio just in time for some weather-advisory foreshadowing.
Meanwhile between my ears, Pigdiddler Bob is diddling his first pig of the morning. I’m a classy person so the camera of my mind’s eye is not zoomed in on interspecies genitals mashing together. Instead, there’s a closeup of Bob’s face contorting into series of grimaced as he approaches climax. He finally says, “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”
This is how I show he’s done without stopping to the vulgarity of the money shot.
It’s later that morning and Schoolteacher Bob is in a classroom full of students. There is one girl in a tight sweater who is chewing gum and staring at his crotch, but we all know Bob would never sample her lunchables. He’s too much of a devoted family man and solid citizen for that. This is supposed to make us like Bob even more.
“The hot-air balloon was first in warfare by Napoleon. This happened over a a hundred years before the invention of the airplane,” Bob says. Bob gets to work his love of ballooning into his lesson plan. Good for Bob.
“Hey teach! If you love balloons so much, why do you listen to Bob Seger? Shouldn’t you be listening to Led Zeppelin?” says Todd, a hulking, ungainly student who has a D-minus average and gets frequent beatings at home.
“You should like balloons too, Todd. They’re full of hot air just like you.”
What a burn.
I hate this movie and I hate this Bob. If I had a box cutter on me, I would jump up out of my seat and start carving up the screen like it was a flight attendant on 9/11.
Just then, the “And then one day” moment arrives in the form of huge, menacing clouds that can be seen outside the classroom window. This is the blizzard and it has a hankering to kill everyone in its path. The camera pans across the students faces, all with deer-in-headlights expressions so effective in Close Encounters and ripped off shamelessly ever since.
My version steers clear of such shopworn tropes. A blizzard, in fact any deadly storm, is a force of nature with a terrible beauty about it. Using the open sky of the Great Plains as a canvas, I am able to fully present its enormity. I let the viewer take this in for almost a full minute before bringing the camera shot down to my Bob having this way with his prize sow in a small wooden pen on his farm.
Bob, usually immune to distraction during such moments, nonetheless gazes up at the sky with awe.
“Lookee there, Petunia. We got a big storm a comin’,” he says.
“Oink,” says Petunia.
From this point, the less said about the onscreen story the better. Schoolteacher Bob saves his family and most of his students (chewing-gum girl dies because she is a slut) by loading them into via, you guessed it, hot-air balloons and escaping. As they float southward to safety, “Against the Wind” play on the soundtrack. Despite getting extra mileage out of the Bob Seger angle, it is a ludicrous choice of song because going against the wind would take them directly into the blizzard and certain death.
The film will no doubt be a financial success even though it is an artistic abortion.
I am proud to say that my story does not go down that path. There is no easy way out for Pigdiddler Bob. He knows his farm will be lost so he bids it farewell with a dignified nod of his head and takes refuge in the root cellar with Petunia, a jug of moonshine, and some lube. The audience then feasts their eyes on some of the most tender and heartfelt lovemaking depicted ever depicted on film while REO Speedwagon’s “Ridin’ the Storm Out” plays in the background.
The movie ends there at that perfect moment. The fate of Bob and Petunia remains unknown. A discerning audience will be fine with this. Moving, character-driven narrative is more important than a tidy ending.