Crazy, Stupid, Love

July 28, 2011

Got to see a sneak preview of this movie the other night. First, for those of you who are just here for the “should I or shouldn’t I?” of it, the answer is yes. Hilarious, emotional, and completely awesome.

Now, for the writers, there’s a few things I noticed in the “why” it was such a great movie:

First, the movie was like a roller coaster. Blake Snyder, when discussing the beat board in Save the Cat, tells you to use positives and negatives to figure out the direction of the scene. In other words, if it starts out on a high and ends on a low, it would get a +/-. If the opposite, it would be a -/+. Personally, I’ve also added -/– and +/++ to the repertoire, since I think a complete 180 is unnecessary as long as it moves the story somewhere.

Snyder mentions that other writers insist that scenes should be lined up +/- -/+ +/- etc., but that he (Snyder) feels that’s going a bit far. I agree with Snyder on this one. But one thing I noticed as I was watching Crazy, Stupid, Love was just how much it went up and down. Every time something was going great, something else would happen to slash the characters off at the knees. And then they would reach in from underneath and make things good again, only to screw it all up once again. It’s like the entire second half of the movie was a series of dark nights of the soul.

Honestly, there may have been one too many iterations of this. It was definitely on the emotionally taxing side. (You can ask my wife, who spend most of the movie either crying or cringing.) But the climax was definitely worth it, if for no other reason than the fact that the 13 year old totally steals it from Steve Carrell in a way that any male who was ever 13 would be in complete awe of.

Second, memorable lines. Someone once said that he can tell whether a movie will be successful based on one factor: whether people come out it quoting lines from the movie. Consider the following:

JERRY
On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t the same, because I couldn’t share it with you.  . . . I love you.  I love you. And I just –

DOROTHY
Shut up, just shut up.  I love you too.

Now compare it to what would produce two of the most famous lines in film history:

JERRY
On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. . . . I love you.  You . . . you complete me. And I just –

DOROTHY
Shut up, just shut up.  You had me at hello.

See the difference?  Jerry Maguire was filled with highly memorable lines: “Show me the money,” “You shoplifted the pooty,” “D’you know the human head weighs eight pounds,” “Help me help you,” and the list just goes on.

But I’m not here to talk about Jerry Maguire. The point is, Crazy, Stupid, Love is filled – FILLED – with memorable lines. My personal favorite is when Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt to an awed female who responds, “God, it’s like you’re Photoshopped!” I think that one might be in the trailer. Another one of my favorites: “Remember last week, when I said I had to work late? I went to go see the new Twilight movie by myself, and I feel awful about it because it was just so bad, so, so bad …”

That’s what a comedy is all about, right?

Third, moments we don’t see coming. I won’t spoil it for you. But very well done. Here I’m reminded of Robert McKee: save your exposition for the second half of the script, when it will explode off the screen and form a huge turning point, rather than be … well, exposition.

Fourth, character. What I found most interesting was that the supporting characters were more clear on what they wanted than the main protagonist. The teenagers, for example, both wanted something very specific that they couldn’t have. Most everyone else thought they wanted one thing, but really wanted something else. But EVERYONE was making very strong decisions to propel their own plotlines. I guess the takeaway from this, to use the words of Will Akers, is to make sure your supporting characters are the heroes of their own stories.

One thing I do wonder about is concept. Because premise-wise, this film isn’t particularly compelling. “A father’s life unravels while he deals with a marital crisis and tries to manage his relationship with his children.” Even for a family comedy, there’s nothing unique about this logline. But the characters and dialogue were written so well, A-list actors couldn’t help but jump on board, and I guess that’s the name of the game.

I’m sure there’s plenty more where this came from, but I think I’m done for now. Go see the movie, and have fun drooling over Ryan Gosling.

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The Three Act Structure Is a Load of Crap

March 22, 2011

This morning, I woke up to a reply from Linda Aronson on my Flashbacks discussion with Michael Hauge (scroll to the comments at the bottom). One of the things she brings up is the fact that not all scripts have to follow the three-act structure, which works only for a certain type of film.

One of the things I’m wrestling with in my current screenplay is that the low point, in the last draft, occurred on page 98 (out of 112). At my reading a few weeks ago, I was told that I need to have it about 20 pages earlier. I’ve been really struggling with this, because I know that the script has some structural issues, but I don’t quite see how to gut the entire first two acts AND add in some of the stronger suggestions they made and still accommodate this change.

After doing a little more research I discovered that yes, in Snyderesque BS2 format, the “All Is Lost” moment needs to happen on page 75, leading to the “Dark Night of the Soul” (75-85) and then the 2nd turning point driving us into Act 3. But then I kept looking and discovered, much to my relief, that this doesn’t always have to be the case. In The Jumper of Maine, which won a Nicholl Fellowship and the AFF Screenplay Competition this year, the low point occurs much later, around page 91 (of 107), leading to a VERY short final act, and the climax.

Then I re-read the “Act Design” chapter of McKee’s Story, which corroborated the idea that you don’t have to shoehorn every story into three acts. Which is good news, because one of the things I’ve been keenly aware of through this whole process is that the closer you stick to the formula, the more formulaic your movie becomes.

So in rewriting Postville, my low point is going to occur earlier than it did in the previous draft (mostly a function of trimming the fat), but then I’m also going to extend out particularly the final act, to give the audience some time to deal with these characters as they’re going through their final crisis.

Still haven’t quite figured out how to do that just yet … but I’m getting closer.


A Story’s Worth a Thousand Books

June 1, 2010

During China’s War of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 207-265), the great general Chuko Liang, leading the forces of the Shu Kingdom, dispatched his vast army to a distant camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldier. Suddenly, sentinels hurried in with the alarming news than an enemy force of over 150,000 troops under Sima Yi was approaching. With only a hundred men to defend him, Chuko Liang’s situation was hopeless. The enemy would finally capture this renowned leader.

Without lamenting his fate, or wasting time trying to figure out how he had been caught, Liang ordered his troops to take down their flags, throw open the city gates, and hide. He himself then took a seat on the most visible part of the city’s wall, wearing a Taoist robe. He lit some incense, strummed his lute, and began to chant. Minutes later he could see the vast enemy army approaching, an endless phalanx of soldiers. Pretending not to notice them he continued to sing and play the lute.

Soon the army stood at the town gates. At its head was Sima Yi, who instantly recognized the man on the wall.

Even so, as his soldiers itched to enter the unguarded town through its open gates, Sima Yi hesitated, held them back, and studied Liang on the wall. Then, he ordered an immediate and speedy retreat.

The above story, from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, illustrates the 5th law: “So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It with Your Life,” and is one of about 70 anecdotes used to illustrate all 48 laws. The stories are set in Ancient China, 18th Century France, Renaissance Italy, Modern America, and everywhere in between. Altogether, these tales their interpretations make up about 90% of the content of the book.

Robert Greene tells all these stories for one simple reason: because he knows that a story is worth a thousand books.

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the best business books I’ve read:

  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Story by Robert McKee

All of these have been wildly successful. Why? Because they tell stories. My technical writing manuals are useful from time to time, but even the ones that are designed to be read cover-to-cover I haven’t finished, because they’re boring. They don’t make you laugh, or cry, or think. They tell you what to do – which is useful enough – but at the end of the day there are a million books out there, and the ones that tell you how without the who are, for the most part, thoroughly unmemorable.

Compare that to The Tipping Point, full of stories about Hush Puppies and AIDS and Paul Revere’s ride, or Good to Great, with its stories about Walgreens’s Internet integration and how Philip Morris became the largest tobacco company in the world. In Robert McKee’s Story, the principle I remember best is “Story happens in the gap between expectation and result,” which also happens to have, at least for me, the two most memorable examples in the book: Chinatown’s “She’s my sister and my daughter” scene and the immortal reveal from The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.

So how do you tell a good story? Well, the answer to that question is tough to summarize in a short essay like this one, especially because most articles about storytelling focus on the same esoteric principles like “theme” and “plot,” which are really hard to explain. But here’s what I’ve found make for the best short stories, which by and large is what you’re telling in a nonfiction book.

Characters

Driving every great story are interesting characters whose fates we care about. In long-form stories they MUST have internal conflict – which is to say, there has to be something mentally or emotionally that’s keeping them from achieving their goals. The shorter the story, the less critical internal conflict is, though it never hurts to have it in there.

In the story above, Chuko Liang’s reputation is paramount – without it, the story doesn’t happen. Just as important is his keen wit and decision making. These characteristics inform every piece of the story, and as readers we’re rooting for him and celebrating his victory.

Details

In the story of Chuko Liang and Sima Yi, consider the details: He wore a Taoist robe, lit some incense, strummed his lute, and chanted . . . these details add depth and intrigue to the story, and make us interested. Though it’s important not to get caught up in excessive description, a red mountain bike means far more to the reader than a bicycle does.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Introduction to The Tipping Point. In explaining how Hush Puppies – “the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole” (details!) reached their tipping point, he shares such particulars as:

  • Sales were down to 30,000 per year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores.
  • People were buying them at “Ma and Pa stores”
  • Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself, and the executives had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.
  • “The designer Joel Fitzgerald put a 25-foot inflatable basset hound – the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand – on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique.”
  • Sales figures in 1995 were 430,000.
  • The president of the company stood on stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that – he would be the first to admit – his company had almost nothing to do with.

Malcolm Gladwell, instead of using the details to illustrate a story, uses details as the story. Consider the following short tale:

The two stood, facing each other, each daring the other to make the first move. A magpie cawed, catching Jacob’s eye for just a tenth of a second. That was all it took. Moments later, his wife rushed over to him, hysterical, her tears pouring into the pool of blood that grew from the gaping hole in his temple.

The story never says that Jacob was shot, but it doesn’t have to. The details do that work for us, and rightly so. Similarly, a 25-foot basset hound on top of a store is a far more interesting and effective way of illustrating the point of growing popularity.

Rising Stakes

Most books about story talk about “plot,” but I find that term doesn’t really mean a whole lot. What really makes a story strong is rising stakes, which happens in one of two ways:

  • Increasing either the importance of accomplishing the goal
  • Increasing the challenges to accomplishing the goal

Everything that happens must be more important or more difficult than what happened before it. If you go back to the original of the story used to open this article, the stakes rise in paragraph one: 150,000 troops rush in (increased challenges) to capture our hero (increased importance), with only a hundred men to defend him (increased challenges). In order to survive, he has to think of something . . . and then he does.

I could write a whole lot more on this, and I’ll save it for a later article, but it’s important to realize that the longer a story is, the more you’ll have to do this. Start by asking yourself the question “Is this more or less interesting than what happened before?” If it’s less, then something needs to change.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why most sequels suck, it’s because it’s really hard to increase the stakes on the second story after the writers blew their wads increasing the stakes in the first.

Mystery vs. Suspense

If two people are sitting at a table, talking for five minutes, and then a bomb goes off, you’ll wonder what happened. But if you show that there’s a bomb under the table, you’ll spend the next five minutes shouting at them to stop talking and get out, because there’s a bomb under the table.

This example, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, illustrates a great point in storytelling: Suspense happens when you give the audience information that the characters don’t have. Mystery happens when you give the characters information the audience doesn’t have.[1]

The Hush Puppies example from The Tipping Point is suspense – we know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know how, and we get to watch the company executives come along for the ride. In The 48 Laws of Power, it’s mystery – we’re not sure what’s going to happen, and then when it does, we wonder how and why.

If you feel your story lacks the element of surprise, drop a hint up front of what’s going to happen, making people wonder how. If, on the other hand, the ending is completely unpredictable, try to disguise it as long as possible to add to the mystery. Both are legitimate tools, and incorporating one or the other makes every sequence of events that much more interesting.

These are just a few of the elements of story. There are a thousand more. What’s important is that you incorporate the human connection in your nonfiction books, because it’s the only way to have people really care about the result.


[1] In a true mystery story, there are a few more rules than that, but for our purposes, this definition is sufficient.


4 Essential Components of a Nonfiction Masterpiece

May 11, 2010

I was a couple years out of college when I first read The Tipping Point. I was working as a “Research Specialist” (read: Administrative Assistant) at a healthcare consulting company, and we had a library of business books that the owner referred to on a regular basis. Among them was Gladwell’s classic about the little things that make a big difference, and as someone who was struggling with my own inner demons, trying to tackle leadership, popularity, and how to change the world, it altered my life.

Over the years, a handful of works have had similar impact on me. Most of them you’ve heard of, but all of them spoke to concerns I was dealing with at the time. And most importantly, they each had the four essential components of a nonfiction masterpiece:

A Desperate Topic

Give Me Desperate Buyers Only (DBO), an (expensive) e-book by Alexis Dawes, contains a detailed explanation of the “desperate topic” criteria. Basically, a topic is desperate if it solves the problem stated by: “I want (more) x,” with x being one of three things: money (often in the form of sales, productivity, etc.), happiness (time, satisfaction, relationship, etc.), and changing the world. The specifics will vary tremendously, and that’s why there are a thousand books on how to succeed, make money, lose weight, get a job, have sex, raise your kids, fix your marriage . . . and the list goes on.

The bottom line: You have to address a concern that people care about.

It should be noted that this comes naturally for most nonfiction authors (excluding memoir, which is a different beast altogether). There are ways to increase marketability by honing in on a more desperate topic (this is what DBO goes into detail about), but if you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you’ve probably already got this handled on some level.

An Original Premise

This is much harder than it sounds, but ultimately it’s what makes the difference between Built to Last and Built to Be Mediocre. Most people think they’ve got an original premise, but really what they’ve got is an original way of looking at the same premise. While you can certainly make money selling sausage on a stick, at the end of the day it’s just a sausage, and it’s not going to change the world.

What sets the books like The Tipping Point or Good to Great or Caro’s Book of Poker Tells apart from the sausages-on-sticks of the literary world is that the ideas came seemingly out of left field. It was like saying the earth goes around the sun – for most of human history the idea never even occurred to anyone, and then once it did, people’s view of life altered.

The good news is you don’t have to be Copernicus in order to come up with an original premise. The bad news is it will probably take a lot of work. The reason Good to Great is such a monumentally important work is the amount of research Jim Collins and his team put into developing it. They created a detailed methodology (not original in itself) for identifying the companies they’d interview, and then spent thousands of man-hours conducting those interviews and then arguing with each other over the principles to include in the book. Had they not conducted all that research, they never would have discovered the “Level 5 Leader,” or the “Hedgehog Concept” or any of the other principles of the Good to Great company.

How to Do Something

If you’ve ever read a book that spews a bunch of stuff at you without telling you how to do something, you know how unsatisfying it is. It’s like eating an ice cream cone without the solid chunk of chocolate at the bottom. It just isn’t the same.

Good to Great might have ended up as only a very good book, instead of a classic, if not for one critical choice Collins made in writing it: he doesn’t stop at describing the Level 5 Leader, he addresses the immortal concern: “How do I become one?” This is especially critical because the qualities of a Level 5 Leader are mostly inherent; by the time a 30-year-old reads this book, it’s too late to become the quiet, unassuming person characterized by Level 5 Leadership. However, Collins knew that in reading Good to Great, people would be driven to alter their leadership style, so he described not just the what, but the how, as he’d been doing in a much more subtle way through the rest of the book.

Part of why The Tipping Point is so much more revered than Gladwell’s follow-up books is not that the premise is any more original, but that there’s an inherent “how to” built into the pages. You want to alter the world? Here’s how to do it. Find these kinds of people.

Great Stories

The person-to-person connection is fundamental, and a book that has only facts and no human element is one that lacks a soul. In all the books I’ve talked about, the stories actually comprise maybe half the text. This is no accident. I challenge you to find a revered nonfiction book that doesn’t include stories that speak to you emotionally.

Even for more technical “how-to” books, the best ones are the ones that offer the best examples. I’ve got dozens of writing books, but my favorite by far is Robert McKee’s Story, and it’s because of two examples he uses to illustrate the principle of the “gap.” I’ll cite one of them:

As Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fight to the death with light sabers, Vader steps back and says: ‘You can’t kill me, Luke, I’m your father.’ The word ‘father’ explodes one of the most famous gaps in film history and hurls the audience back through two whole films separated by three years. . . . Two films that made perfect sense to this moment now have a new, deeper layer of meaning. . . .

George Lucas could have exposed Luke’s paternity by having C3PO warn R2D2, ‘Don’t tell Luke, he’d really be upset to hear this, but Darth’s his dad.’ Rather they used Backstory exposition to create explosive Turning Points that open the gap between expectation and result, and deliver a rush of insight.

That second paragraph completely altered how I view exposition, back story, and act structure. I’m in the middle of On Writing by Stephen King, with similar experiences, even as he identifies principles I already know – like cutting out adverbs – in a whole new way.

When you start to pay attention, you’ll notice that these same rules show up everywhere. This article, for example, was not written in a vacuum devoid of the four points above. Neither were the world’s most memorable speeches. (Look closely at the Gettysburg Address or the “I Have a Dream” speech and you’ll see all four elements.)

So . . . Take a look at your book. Does it have the essential elements of a nonfiction masterpiece?

——-

David Kassin Fried is a professional ghost writer and book editor specializing in nonfiction. His business, DKF Writing Services, has been providing freelance writing, editing, and proofreading services since 2006.


The Problem-Solution Mass

August 25, 2009

I was watching my favorite part of Moulin Rouge! the other day – basically, the elephant scenes.  I noticed a very interesting pattern:

They introduce a problem, then they solve it.  Then, as soon as that one is solved, they introduce another problem, and then they solve that.  Lather, rinse, repeat, for about 20-25 minutes.  Behold:

Problem Outcome/Solution
Satine and Christian are in the elephant for different reasons. She wants to seduce him, and he wants to inspire her with his poetry. She fakes an orgasm for a while, until he bursts into song and makes her fall in love with him.
She realizes he’s not the Duke, freaks out, and then the Duke shows up while he’s still in there. They run around for a while, trying to divert him, until they finally get him out of the room. Then …
Satine passes out, and the Duke returns to get his hat, only to discover her in the arms of another man. The emergency rehearsal! Generally, the Duke likes it.
While everyone else is celebrating, Christian tries to write, but all he can think about is Satine. He goes to visit her, while she’s lamenting and dreaming.
She’s not allowed to fall in love. But a life without love, that’s terrible! He sings for her again. She falls in love again. He’s going to be bad for business, she can tell.

My favorite part of Robert McKee’s Story is that story happens in the gap between expectation and result.  Any time you think you know – or even more critically, any time the characters think they know – what’s going to happen, we need to throw them a curve ball, which they then need to figure out how to solve.  That’s done here in spades, and this happens to be one of my favorite movie sequences – I’ve watched Moulin Rouge! in its entirety maybe four or five times, but I’ve watched that sequence closer to four or five dozen.

Of course, there are a lot of other things going on here, than just the problem-solution mass.  It’s also visually stunning, outstandingly well-choreographed, hilariously funny, and thematically brilliant.  Plus, Nicole Kidman is hot.

But we could all stand to take a page from Moulin Rouge! and introduce more problems into our screenplays that our characters have to solve.


Drama: The Absence of Action or Results

March 18, 2009

There’s a personal development program I participate in, and as part of that, I was today looking at my most recent “training issue” and the structures I’m putting in place to have a breakthrough around that.

My most recent training issue is Give up drama and arrogance.

On reflection, I find this very interesting.  I am a very dramatic person.  It makes perfect sense.  I grew up as an actor, I’m now a writer, and so for most of my life I’ve been trained in how to add drama to everything I do.  It’s a strong suit; being dramatic is, in a sense, what I rely on to produce results.

The irony is that for me, as with most people, my strengths and weaknesses are very closely related, and this area is no exception.  Because the way this translates into life is it’s all about me and how difficult it all is and how I’m suffering and failing and as I look at all of that, whether it’s around work or relationships or my marriage or cleaning my effing house, it’s all kind of silly and gross.

So now that I’ve distinguished it I can be responsible for it, and I can be dramatic where it serves me (in my writing or performing) and I can give up the drama where it doesn’t.

Where it starts to get even more interesting is when I started to look at the structures to put in place around giving up the drama.  What everyone keeps telling me is that I’m addicted to insights, and that I need to stop “seeing things” and start doing and being in action.  Which led me to the following structure for having a breakthrough: “…instead of looking for insights and talking about it, I am getting into action. Being in action in all areas of my life is an access to giving up the drama, since drama only exists in the absence of action or results.”

Let’s look at that last sentence again: Drama only exists in the absence of action or results.

I’ve long been revering McKee for his insight that story exists in the gap between expectation and result, and I think I’m on to something else here, too.  Because where drama occurs in a film or a book is in those moments when there is no action or when results are not being produced.

Think about it.  When are the “dramatic” moments of a film?  It’s not when someone’s blowing up a car or getting chased down an alley, it’s when there’s a pause in the action; when people are talking to each other about themselves or others.  The drama in The Dark Knight occurs when Bruce Wayne is sitting in the penthouse saying, “She was gonna wait for me, Alfred,” or when Alfred tells him “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  Crashing into a skyscraper in Hong Kong and then returning to the plane while it’s in mid-flight isn’t dramatic, it’s just cool.

To take it a step further, there’s a whole genre of movies called “drama.”  These are the movies that come out in the fall, and are the ones that win Oscars because they’re deep and moving and meaningful, but when you look at the plot of these movies, typically speaking, not a lot happens.  The Shawshank Redemption is not a high concept flick filled with people doing stuff or producing results.   It’s a story about what happens to our hero between the decisions he makes.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is clearly dramatic, but when you talk about that movie, you’re not talking about the things he  does.  In Star Wars on the other hand, you do talk about the things they do – blowing up the Death Star or using the Force.  Where’s the drama?  “No, I am your father …”

Which means that if you’re looking to create drama, have the characters slow down and talk.  Have them fail to produce the desired results (save Rachel Dawes’ life, kill Darth Vader, get a new trial based on Tommy’s testimony). And if you’re not looking for drama, then don’t – have them be in action and actually causing something and producing results.


Story, Plot & The King and I

December 3, 2008

I watch a lot of movies.  This is one of the great joys of being a freelance writer and a screenwriter; I get to watch movies whenever I want, and write it off as “research.”  And trust me, I take advantage of this opportunity.

My wife is a great movie partner, by the way.  We go see action flicks together all the time, I managed to talk her into Tropic Thunder – which she loved, and she stood in line for hours to see The Dark Knight in IMAX on opening night.

But a look at our DVD collections might tell you differently.  I tend to buy “modern marvels” – new movies that are tremendously unique and, to me, powerful: High Fidelity, Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and Natural Born Killers.  Her collection, on the other hand, tends to focus more on films like Elizabeth, Pride & Prejudice, and the complete Rodgers & Hammerstein collection.

Moulin Rouge and Amelie made both of our collections.

We’re still in the process of moving in together, so this difference has become somewhat glaring as we combined and organized our collections this week.  But I’ve missed a lot of classics growing up so we decided to pop in The King and I for our Monday and Tuesday evening viewing.  I felt like it would’ve been better if it hadn’t been a musical, or if it had starred Jodi Foster instead of Deborah Kerr.

In all seriousness, I saw Anna and the King in the theater when it came out, and though I liked it, the only thing I remember 9 years later is a line where Jodi Foster is talking about how she’s falling for the king (or something), and “the way he looks at me, I feel like …” and then the person interrupts her and says, “One of his twenty-three wives or forty-two concubines?”

The thing I loved about The King and I is the fact that the love story between the two leads occurs purely in the subtext.  He is in love with her, and she with him, but to say that would cheapen their entire relationship.  It’s that undercurrent – that their relationship is so clearly different to any of his other relationships – that drives the entire film, but they both know that they could not be married, that it’s antithetical to either of their cultural beliefs.  The fact that their remorse of this is internalized, rather than externalized, is what makes it so amazing to watch.

To compare it to a more extreme example, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs have the same problem – there is clearly something there, whether it’s sexual tension or some kind of emotional connection, but it’s clearly something that will never, ever be stated out loud.  Can you imagine how awful that would be, if they’d actually spoken that intimacy?  “You frighten me, Dr. Lecter, but there’s something powerful about you that I find intriguing.  It’s almost as if, under different circumstances, we could be together.”  Yuck.  Instead, it was internalized and made for tantalizing viewing.

Something to realize is that both of these movies featured Oscar-winning performances.  Although I, as a writer, would love to be able to give the writers all the credit for their brilliant work in creating these scripts, I don’t think that can discount the powerful impact of the actors and actresses who portrayed them.  Subtext is a difficult thing to write, but it may be an even harder thing to perform, and for that I can’t express enough gratitude to Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Anthony Hopkins, and Jodi Foster.

There’s one other thing I noticed about The King and I, which is the extent to which the story takes its time.  Though there is a very clear plot, the focus isn’t there – it’s on the relationships.  This a theme that’s been recurring a lot for me recently.  I’m been taking improv classes, and one of the recurring lessons of this particular school is that if you focus on the characters and their relationships, the story will take care of itself.  I’m not sure how much I’ve liked this approach – I’m a very story-oriented kind of guy – but I’ve been taking the coaching and applying it.  It’s also something I’ve been criticizing my dad’s most recent play for.  Though it’s an excellent play, and far and away the best thing he’s ever done, I feel as though, as the play progresses, the focus turns away from the relationships and toward the driving points of the plot.  As a result, the third act ends very quickly and the theme and character arcs get lost.

This is what makes The King and I so amazing.  We spend fifteen or twenty minutes, toward the top of Act II, on the play within the play (a 1950s film interpretation of a 19th century Siamese theatrical interpretation of a 19th century American novel – brilliant!).  While it progresses the plot in a few ways, the elements of it that progress the plot don’t need fifteen minutes to be executed.  More importantly, it’s a huge thematic moment: it’s an opportunity for the king to be proud of Anna and of his country, and for Anna to be proud of her students and her work; we see awe and magic; the recurring theme of refusal versus acceptance of that with which we are unfamiliar; the struggle between power and subordination, king and subject, master and slave; and we see extraordinary beauty.

Why the play-within-the-play in Midsummer Night’s DreamHamlet?  Why is Les Miserables three hours long?  Why, in Waiting for Godot, do we watch our heroes do absolutely nothing … twice?  The answer to all these questions is the same: because the story happens not in the plot, but in the relationships and the thematic moments in between.


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