Month: November 2017

The Slow Road To Branagh: Murder on the Orient Express

It’s just after 10am, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The movie theater is packed, and I’m sitting in the second seat of the second row. The theater is quiet and dim, everything set for the show to start.

And then the projector kicks off. More accurately, it reboots, and after a few minutes and some apologies from a teenager, the movie starts.

I’ve got all my narrative tools laid out in front of me. I’m ready to get to work.

Today’s movie:

and here we go.

1 hour and 57 minutes later, I’m back in my car, recording my initial impressions.

I will tell you that I came in ready to eviscerate and destroy, and instead I left the theater feeling okay. Not bloodthirsty. Not disappointed. Not feeling like I wasted the $6 (thanks early morning prices). Just … okay.

Let’s get the particulars out of the way. Murder on the Orient Express is a 2017 film directed by (and starring) Kenneth Branagh, written by Michael Green (yes the guy from Logan and Blade Runner 2049), based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. And yes, you should go read the novel at some point.

It is not a perfect movie. It is not the transcendent experience of the year, but it’s not awful either. It sits right in the middle of middlesburg, doing its best to be a workable movie that doesn’t warrant a lot of vitriol the way a DC movie would.

In fact, it doesn’t warrant a whole rewrite. It’s got some issues that I’ll point out so that you can take some practical advice into your own work, but it’s not in need of a full-on overhaul. I wanted it to be, I even had an idea in mind (which will probably end up on Patreon), but this movie doesn’t scream for it.

The best metaphor I can draw for this movie is this:

It’s pretty but hollow, and once you bite into it, you realize how far you are from the good stuff on the other side.

Character Development

If you’re not familiar with Hercule Poirot, you should go track down the David Suchet version that ran on PBS and A&E for 13 years. It’s the definitive Poirot. In a nutshell, Poirot is the Belgian Sherlock Holmes, the prim and exactingly fastidious deductive machine, brought in to solve crimes and discover criminals.

Branagh takes the prim and fastidious part as more than the window dressing and puts it front and center. Whether you want to term this compulsive or OCD is up to you, but Branagh’s Poirot is a package of quirks wearing what can best be described as a gray barbershop broom strapped to his face.

It’s really hard to present a well-formed character when you put attention on the quirks, even when you play them for levity (as Branagh does with eggs in the movie’s opening) or sincerity (as Branagh mumbles about a relationship just before the crime’s introduction to the story), because quirks aren’t enough to compose an idea. They’re window dressing, elements that highlight or torque other elements, and Branagh’s playing a biped with some really nice quirks in a really nice suit for nearly two hours.

This lack of depth persists to the other characters as well, since they’re played for utility over individuation (more on that in a second), and it almost doesn’t matter that you’ve got Johnny Depp as the dead guy or hey-that’s-Rey-from Star-Wars-in-a-cute-hat, because we’re meant to look at them well ahead of feeling anything for them.

Don’t worry though, Branagh will just come along and tell you how to feel, and the camerawork will reinforce that. Look at the pretty things, look how they look at each other in their lookingness.

Good visuals (which would be paragraphs and pages of description in text, see other blogpost), aren’t the same thing as humanizing the characters or showing motivations or giving the reader a permission slip or open door to care about them. It’s all just nice things to look at while time passes in our theater seat.

Additionally, time on screen (that is, time spent talking about a thing in text) is not the same as building connection with the reader/audience either. Just because you put a thing front and center, and Branagh puts himself so often literally front and center of so many shots that it’s hard not to conclude that ego drove this production, doesn’t mean that I care more about it.

If I knew what to do with the thing I’m shown so often, if I’ve got a context, or the opportunity to follow an arc beyond just one that addresses a plot, then I’ll care about it. You have to get to the Why (as in Why does _____ (doing whatever they’re doing) matter right here and right now to this character and other characters around them) in the story and not just the How or the What. Context is the reader’s passport to your world, and it’s hella tough to build context when the best bullet in your gun is “look how pretty everything and everyone is.”

Plot and Pacing

Without spoiling anything huge, the plot is this –

a) someone is killed on a train
b) detective figures out who did it
c) killer gets what’s coming to them

Johnny Depp is the victim here, and that’s as much of a spoiler as I’m willing to give you, because you should go read the novel for the rest of the story and its ending. I say Johnny Depp and not the character’s name deliberately, because he’s very clearly just being Johnny-Depp-as-a-1920s-crime-guy who’s waiting for his cue to cash his paycheck. He gets killed and Poirot has to figure out who did it.

The story hinges on the idea that every other character we meet in the story could be a suspect, and that this places a premium on the Belgian’s deductive faculties to solve the case.

Let’s talk about mystery construction for a minute, because you need the theory that sits under this story.

[LET’S ALL GO TO THE SIDEBAR]

Mysteries thrive on potential. The potential victim, the potential killer, the potential method and motive … it’s the unknown that drives not only the protagonist to solve the case, but also the audience to join in solving it or care about it being solved.

When you have multiple suspects, each should have a compelling and separate reason for their potential involvement in the crime. Having characters relate to each other ahead of their relationship to the crime does not give them additional potential to have done it. (This is called distinction of motivation, it’s also the same thing that makes characters in any ensemble join together to do plot in a story.)

Example: You decide you’ve had enough of your neighbor’s shenanigans. You create this elaborate plan to do them in, and you realize that you need my specific help. I’m not the patsy you’ll blame for the crime, I’m the future-accomplice. You’ve got two different roads to take for telling this story –

  1. You can lean on our relationship (yours and mine) to compel me to help you with the neighbor’s demise
  2. You can trust my relationship with the neighbor to compel me to help you do the deed.

Going with #1 puts the focus on how we relate to each other, and in turn dictates how the audience relates to us, individually and as a murder-partnership. Going with #2 makes you and I two individuals with similar goals, and our pre-existing relationship matters less than our post-murder relationship.

In every mystery, a premium is placed on the relationships. In the absence of defining the relationships and how they influence action, you put distance between the What (what’s happening) the Why (see above) and the How (how should an audience feel), which all conspires to keep the audience from really getting invested in the story.

[SIDEBAR OVER]

In order to flesh out the distinction of motivations, or focus on suspects and their relationships, you have to make sure in-story time is appropriately parceled out. Every possible suspect needs relatively equal time so that we can draw a conclusion of “Yes they could have done it just as much as the other person” over the course of what it mostly the second act.

The film doesn’t develop enough things equally, preferring instead to stay a more shallow course and provide enough details so we can distinguish Penelope Cruz’s character from Daisy Ridley’s but not the emotional cores of each woman that would compel them to care to act in a murderous way, even after plot revelations tell us (more on that in a minute) they have a reason.

With uneven development, you get uneven pacing. And in the face of uneven pacing, a lot of stories fall back on showing the less important things – in this case, we go right back to “look how pretty everything is.”

Show and Tell as Story Engine

The old adage is: “If you want a character to be thought of as smart, have them do more telling to other characters and the audience than showing.”

Detectives in particular make use of telling as part of the criminal revelation, which is usually the third act moment(s) where the killer or badguy gets pointed out just prior to story conclusion.

Where this goes a little wonky is that what’s being told is really being shown, just shown verbally, often through a monologue or some kind of narrated flashback. This way, it’s being told to the other characters, and both shown-and-told to the audience.

Poirot stories make their bones in this reveal, and they’re the story equivalent of flipping to the back of the textbook for the answers to see if what you got is the actual solution.

This system really works when the majority (if not the only) telling you get is in that third act, when all the pieces are finally put together by the only character who can really do all the assembling, and the audience is encouraged to mentally participate. (Note: Ellery Queen, a TV show from the 70s, took this to actually break the 4th wall and talk to the audience to ask them if they’ve figured it out).

Branagh’s Poirot spends the majority of the film telling us all different kinds of things in hasty little burbles, so that by the time we get to the big reveal and story resolution, we’re all sort of tired because over and over again we’ve been reminded of something we hadn’t forgotten – that Poirot is quirky and smart and there’s a crime and he’ll solve it, and oh by the way isn’t all this stuff and people really pretty.

Too much telling robs the audience of their ability to participate. It reinforces passivity, and doesn’t necessarily convey “look how smart the character is”, because the relationship where people would feel invested in the character’s smartness is too one-sided.

And because the audience is pushed to passivity, they can (and I’m so sorry I’ve harped on this a lot in these nearly two thousand words) see how pretty everything and everyone is and somehow derive satisfaction that the period costumes and setting look awesome.

So where does the rewrite live? Not in the plot, but in its broadcast to the audience. Here’s the quick outline

IN THE PRESENT:
A. Murder

IN THE PAST:
B. Show train, set up time frame
C. (cut to past) Intro detective on previous case
D. Intro reason to get detective on train
E. Intro other characters
F. Start train, prompt motive development

IN THE PRESENT:
G. Crime is discovered
H. Detective has compelling not-convenient reason to investigate
I. Detective investigates

IN THE PAST:
J. Clues discovered so far prompt detective to have certain train of thought or theory

IN THE PRESENT:
K. Progression of investigation changes relationships between characters
L. -insert any red herrings or distractions here –
M. Repeat of (I) and (J) as needed
N. Detective deduces solution.

IN THE PAST:
O. Murder is shown based on sum of (J) through (N)

IN THE PRESENT:
P.  Detective gathers all suspects
Q. Detective reveals what happened
R. Guilty party receives justice

That’s the crude back-of-the-napkin outline. With something as simple as shuffling the order of ideas around, you create something more gripping for the audience. Yes, of course, scrambling the order means you’d need to film segues and connective tissue, but it would all drive us to plot and resolution, which is where mystery is supposed to live.

In all, not a bad movie, and certainly deserving of all the praise and interest in its visuals. I just wish it was less Easter candy and more narrative candy bar.

Thanks for reading. Happy writing.

 

PS I love doing narrative breakdowns on movies, so if you want to see more of them, let me know

PPS If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix this week, I can strongly recommend Jim + Andy. Here’s the trailer.  It’s the EPK footage about Carrey’s performance/living as Andy Kaufman, and it’s amazing. I’m not even the largest Kaufman fan, but I’m a Carrey fan, and I was really moved and affected by this show. Go check it out. 

Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, movie review, movies that make me think things, 0 comments

Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.

Expectations

Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.

 

Happy writing

 

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, step by step, storycraft, structure, the craft of writing, 1 comment

Vacation’s Over, Back to Work

The vacation is over. I don’t have an annoying slide show to make you suffer through. I don’t have kitschy mugs bought last minute at the airport gift shop for you.

What I do have is a nice blog post about what’s happening from here on out to all things Writer Next Door.

I’m rescheduling and refocusing based on what I learned on my break. It was a good break, I’m glad I took it, and it taught me a lot about myself and what I put around me while I do what I do. The short version of what I learned can be found here.

Tweetstorms
Tweetstorms will happen Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The list of topics will be posted on Sunday (usually in the evenings). They’ll still happen around 9am ET, give or take. As always, appointments and life can get in the way, and if that’s the case, they’ll just happen later in the day.

Blogposts
Blogposts will go up on Tuesdays. There will be some posts that will be just text, some just audio, and some videos.

Patreon
Patreon gets its dose of content on Thursday, unless there’s a specific reason (like a convention or a time-sensitive reason I can’t think of as an example). That’s effective as of this coming Thursday (11/9).

Facebook
It’s for friends and family, and I have spent a lot of time excising the negative and the disruptive out of it.

Instagram
I will be using this more, but mostly for not-work stuff, unless excitement clearly dictates I show cool shit off. It’ll be used regularly.

Twitter
Overall, you’re not going to see the changes I’ve made to Twitter. Like Facebook, there was a culling and a real examination of who and what I wanted broadcasting at me, but for the most part I’m not going to suddenly stop being me on the platform that feels the most me.

Google+
I know I need to use it more, and I will. Yes the UI continues to be clownshoes, but I think there’s gold still left to mine. No, I don’t know why the blogposts aren’t being publicly shared. I’m setting aside a whole day this week to figure it out.

Discord
Wha? There’s a Discord server? There is! Patreon patrons and clients should be getting their invites soon (I’m doing it in batches), and it’s going to be a point of communication that’s going to focus and organize some of the new stuff you’ll see on the blog and in the business.

WNDo (yes call it ‘window’, I have been)
Super excited to tell you that the first classes of WNDo (Writer Next Door online) are in the can, and while there will be a more formal announcement about WNDo and signing up and all that, the short pitch is this:

I’m teaching a class that’s going to help you make your art. From writer’s block to character development to querying, we’re going to work together to help you make your awesome happen.

The Blog
You’ll see some cosmetic and structural changes over the next month or so as I tweak the theme and fix up some pages that are languishing or are no longer needed.

The Business
Yep, changes here too.

In the super near future I’ll be rolling out 2 new services and a newsletter. There will be some pages going in, some getting facelifts, and some general shuffling of menus to make it easier for both you and I to get around the site.

*

I want to wrap this post up with the 3 promises I’m making to you. It’s important you know what’s up and how this is gonna go from here on out.

i. There’s no bullshit here. I’m me, and you’re you, and we don’t have to agree (this isn’t a cult, I have no Kool-aid for you), but there’s always going to be respect and absolute equality here. We can be as different as Twix Bars and dish towels, but we’re going to be cool and respectful.

ii. I will always believe in you. You deserve love and success and joy and to have your art out in the world. I do not know the path your art will take to get you that success, but I will damned sure do everything in my power to help you find your dream, chase it down, and be the best you you can be.

iii. Honesty and responsibility win at all times. I am gonna be me, sound like me, say what I say, and work how I work. I’m going to own my mistakes, express myself without artifice, and do what I say I’m going to do. When in doubt, being honest about the state of things and being responsible for myself will be the operating directive.

Let’s go make awesome stuff today. Let’s tell your story.

 

Posted by johnadamus, 0 comments