Tag Archives: storytelling

Falling Flat

My husband and I are fans of an interesting TV show called Project Greenlight which is a behind the scenes series about getting a movie made from executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. We watched several seasons of the show years ago, but then there was a long hiatus between the previous seasons and this season. This season’s show on HBO ended earlier this month.

In addition to the seasons of Project Greenlight, we have seen a few of the movies that were made during the show. We have never really been overwhelmed with the results. It’s not unusual to have a more enjoyable behind the scenes adventure to watch on the TV show than a good movie as the result.

While this season of Project Greenlight, with the contest winning first time director Jason Mann assisted by Project Greenlight producer Effie Brown, had a lot of drama over the direction of the film that made the show a lot of fun to follow, the movie never really seemed like it would turn out well.

HBO premiered the movie, The Leisure Class, earlier this month to pretty poor reviews. Despite the bad reviews, we watched it On Demand just to see the end result. Unsurprisingly we found out it just was not good.

What was good about watching it, for me, though was finding lessons in what not to do when developing my own stories and characters.

The Leisure Class was Mann’s own script developed out from a 3 minute short film. The story takes place over the course of about 24 hours and is supposed to be a comedy. I think. Or a dark comedy perhaps.  Perhaps it is meant as satire? The issue is that it hits none of those marks. There is little that is funny and a lot that just falls flat because you just don’t get who the characters are or why we should care about them. Who are these people? Why are they doing the things they do? Why would anyone possibly say some of the things they say or respond the way they respond?

Ed Weeks plays Charles, a supposedly charming Englishman (who just comes off as a bit of a slimeball honestly, not at all charming) who is supposed to marry Fiona (Bridget Regan), a stiff upper class daughter of a wealthy Senator who is running for some sort of office apparently herself. They have an engagement dinner where Charles’s brother unexpectedly drops in causing the scheming Charles some difficulty. Tom Bell plays the screwball brother, Leonard, that shakes the family up.

It could be funny. Instead it’s just awkward. He doesn’t really cause that much trouble. The trouble is rather unbelievable. The aftermath is really unbelievable. The characters’ reactions are frequently the most unbelievable. Several scenes are just painfully bad with characters saying the most awful things to each other and for what purpose? Big meltdowns and confrontations should serve the story somehow but these seem to be confrontation for confrontations sake. Shock for shock value only.

Tell me a story! Not a rushed compilation of stilted scenes pieced together that can almost be blended together into a chunky mess of a story.

Make me care about the characters! If the character’s actions don’t make sense the story doesn’t make sense. If what the characters say doesn’t fit who that character is supposed to be, the story doesn’t make sense. The characters have to make sense for the story to make sense.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter how fine the details are if the overall story doesn’t work. The biggest lesson seems to be to just make sure there is actually a good story there. If there isn’t a solid story, no one is going to care how pretty it all turns out. Tell me a solid story and make me care about the characters or there’s just no point.

Just The Tip of The Iceberg

I write on the principle of the iceberg… 7/8ths of it underwater for every part that shows. – Ernest Hemingway

This past weekend my family and I went to an arts fest held at a local museum that included free admission to a lovely new exhibit travelling from the National Galleries of Scotland. We listened to music, saw some dancing and watched a battle with swords and shields that was probably my three boys’ favorite part. I was most excited for the exhibit so I brought the boys while I was able to walk through and look at the art. My oldest made more of an attempt to seem interested than most of the boys we had with us, and though he wasn’t that impressed, he asked me what I liked so much about looking at the paintings. I had to think about how to answer.

How to you explain art appreciation simply and quickly while in a crowded exhibit full of people huddled up in front of a Picasso? I told him there’s a lot that can be studied, the color, the brush strokes, the mood created, but what I love is how the picture makes me feel. There may be layers of things going on in the painting in front of me, but inevitably I’ll be drawn to small details, or will just be moved by the overall impact of the painting.  I think his response was “Hmmm” and then he drifted off back to his friend. Such a parenting win – haha!

I left, though, thinking more about it, and of course thinking more about it as a writer.

When we read we do the same thing as when we look at art. Usually we don’t read to appreciate the word choice or the writer’s ability to plot, we read for the impact the story or essay or poem has upon us. As a writer, it’s our job to lay the groundwork, as artfully as we are able, for the reader to fill in the blanks and carry it away to another place.

I submitted the beginning of a short story to my critique group this week, and what I loved to hear from one of the group was that she could see her own experience in the story. While it wouldn’t be exactly like what the reader had experienced, it was enough to pull up her own experience to color in where the writing stops.

So how much do we give? I like Hemingway’s quote above about the iceberg, and how what we show in the story is only a piece of what is going on, so that the reader can find or provide the rest of  the “iceberg”. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classic example of his particular style of showing us a story that has hidden depths beneath. What seems to be a simple conversation tackles the much bigger concept of abortion.

I’m still learning how to build a story that gives you just enough to make you go a little further, thinking more about it, or that has an emotional impact that takes you somewhere else.

Hawthorne tells us “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” It’ll take a lot of writing with effort to get something that manages to show a little but give a lot, but it’s definitely something I’m aiming toward.

What about you? Do you agree with Hemingway – show a bit of the iceberg? What stories or poems do you think do this well? Or do you think there’s the danger of not giving enough? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

Thanks for dropping by. Have a great week!

~CJS

Remember when…

I wrote this post following a big ol’ gathering of extended family at my house this weekend. I have an aunt visiting from out of state who is always good at getting us all together even when our busy lives seem to keep us from doing otherwise. We had brothers, sisters, parents, kids, aunts, uncles, and cousins (plus my little over-stimulated dog) filling up our house for a very pleasant summer afternoon. Since this is Texas and it was a large family gathering, there was a big buffet of food, a whole lot of sweet iced tea,  a mess of noisy kids running and playing everywhere, quite a few loud bursts of laughter and then, of course, lots and lots of stories.

You know the stories I am talking about, the ones that start with “Remember when…” and end with smiles and nods and laughs, then inevitably lead to another story which adds on to the previous one.  Even the normally quiet ones in the group can’t resist chiming in with a “Remember that old place in such and such a town”, which some will remember with an “Oh yeah, I do” and others might not remember as clearly. Some stories are new, tales of recent adventures or something never shared, but for the most part there’s a lot of shared memories brought back up amid laughter and occasionally some tears.

As a writer, I love listening to all the little details, not just to learn more about a history within my family I might not know about, but also because I can always tuck it away for a potential story idea later.

One story this weekend talked about an old ice house in the town they grew up in where some family members would go to get blocks of ice. Blocks of ice? Not nice bags of crushed ice from the local convenience store? Well, I’ll tell ya, that that’s about as foreign to me as having to get up off the couch to go change the TV station without a remote control would seem to my young kids.  Whose to say that doesn’t somehow work its way into a story of mine someday?

Quite a lot of those “Remember when” stories are just chock full of potential details for a scene or interesting character development possibilities. The grandmother who sold war bonds could work her way into a story or the great grandfather who was such an imposing figure could be the basis for supporting character in my novel.

But even beyond the possible story ideas, the idea of exploring a character’s own possible collection of stories as a way to develop some depth to the definition of a character seems intriguing to me also.  What would my lead character talk about at a family gathering? Would her stories be ones she would share and laugh over, or would her family be one that never spoke of their stories for being too painful. Does my character have core stories that help establish who she is and where she comes from? Probably very little of those stories would make it into the novel but knowing that about her might help make a weaker character a little stronger.

Do you have a lot of ‘Remember when’ stories in your family, too? Do you use them for your writing? Or do you find yourself rolling your eyes or dozing off as you hear the one about that time in the place with the people for the zillionth time? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Thanks for stopping in and have a great week! 🙂

~CJS