In Storytelling, Not Everything Must Go Wrong

I recently saw the movie Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Now, I’m not here to review the movie. I don’t feel I’m in a position to, given my passive knowledge of filmmaking. There are plenty of people better suited for that than I.

When it comes to movies, I only know what I like or dislike. In Gravity, I liked the discreet, yet enhancing use of 3D. One of the few times I’ve enjoyed 3D in this modern incarnation of it. Sandra Bullock struck me as believable and drew me in emotionally. And the overall look of the film was fantastic. It was beautiful to watch, and the shots from behind the helmet’s visor were unique and new to me. They made me think I knew what space looked and sounded like.

The only thing I didn’t like: the idea some writers seem to have that in a drama, to keep the tension high, everything that could go wrong, should go wrong. And, from a storytelling perspective, that I feel I can critique.

For anyone not familiar with Gravity, it’s the story of a woman stranded alone in space who must fight, via a precisely timed serious of events, to get herself back to Earth. Add to that the fact that she’s not a full-blown “astronaut,” just a doctor they sent up to install a new piece of equipment on the International Space Station, and you have the Hero’s thrilling struggle for survival. Will she make it home or die alone in space?

Now, take a second and imagine you’re in her position. You’re completely alone, in a spacesuit, floating around with the normal rules of movement, such as gravity dragging you down, not in play. If you start to drift away from your spaceship, and there is nothing manmade around to catch you, there is literally nothing to stop you from floating further and further away, as friction doesn’t exist. You can see Earth. It’s right in front of you, but you have no way to get to it. You’re just drifting around until you die. Terrifying, right?!

But wait! There is a way. There’s a capsule you can use to get back to Earth. The catch is it’s far away and you have a small chance of getting to it. Plus, if you do get there, remember you’re not an astronaut, and you’ve never flown a capsule before and have only a basic knowledge of how to fly one. Oh, and there’s no one you can talk to that can tell you how to fly it.

That, minus a few details, is the plot of Gravity. That is the tree our Hero Sandra Bullock is stuck up – will she make it down alive?

I don’t know about you, but for me that creates enough tension. The plan, as it was laid out, sounded nearly impossible to accomplish, yet she’d give it her best shot because, well, what else could she do? As a viewer, willing to suspend a lot of disbelief to be told this story, I was in.

But then the writers started adding in extra obstacles to “ratchet-up” the tension. I don’t want to give anything away, but here are a few hints: fire, tangled cords, Chinese. And that’s not all of them. The final one I can’t even list because it would give too much away, but it was the last straw for me. When it happened, I actually laughed out loud. It had all just become too much. The Hero had gone through an ENORMOUS number of obstacles, and when it looked like she was finally in the clear, they threw in this last, completely unnecessary obstacle that just made me shake my head and laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think some additional obstacles are okay. There are always things ready to jump out of closets at the Hero. Just not every closet. And why not? Because, in my opinion, as a writer creating fiction you have to walk a fine line of the believable vs. unbelievable carefully.

As a viewer, I’m always aware that a movie is a work of fiction. (Unless it isn’t. Love me some documentaries.) I might be drawn in emotionally, to the point I forget the passing of time, but I’m never so enthralled that I forget I’m being told something someone made up. For me, the best movies never make me doubt that, while I know this story didn’t happen, it could happen. That’s true even with science fiction and fantasies, as long as the story operates believably in the rules of the world the writer has established.

For me, one of the ways a story can begin to become unbelievable is when a writer starts adding additional obstacles that are not really necessary to the main arch of the story and do little or nothing to move the story forward. At best, they make the viewer feel tenser, whether her or she needs to or not. But at worst, they are distracting and make the viewer question the movie. Then all you’ve done as a writer is swerve the story closer towards the implausible.

Instead, I prefer to see the writer allow the natural tension of the story he or she’s created to run its course. Trust that the basic premise of a woman stranded in space facing death is enough to carry a story. And in Gravity, it most definitely was enough for me. It didn’t need so many extra obstacles. The main one was big enough.

I’m not picking on this movie alone. Quite a few movies are guilty of this. Another that comes to mind is Precious. The protagonist suffers what would be for most of us an insurmountable number of tragedies. But, for me, a diagnosis she receives at the end of the movie, was one tragedy too many. After everything that had happened to Precious, this last thing made the story seem unbelievable to me. I didn’t feel sorry for her anymore because I felt the writer was trying too hard at that point to make me feel sorry. To be incredibly crass about it, it was as if I wanted to say to the writer: ‘I get it. I understand her life is tragic. This isn’t necessary.”

So does everything that can go wrong need to go wrong? No, I really don’t think so. Again, for me, it comes back to trust. As a writer, trust that your initial inciting incident that pushes your Hero down the path of struggle is enough to carry your story. Stop augmenting it. You only make it more unbelievable.

I Read: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

You ever find an unread book on your shelf that has been there so long you can’t even remember how you got it? As an avid reader, I don’t have many of them, but this was one.

It’s been with me so long the page edges are browning and the cover has faded, as I’m sure it’s shifted into various sun-bleaching positions as it’s followed me. I’m thinking it was a gift, probably from a grandparent when I was a little girl. It has a 1987 copyright, and I could tell from the un-ridged binding it had never been fully read.

I do remember attempting to read it when I was young, but something stopped me only a few pages in. As a kid, it could have be as simple as the total number of pages or the tiny print or the lack of pictures. But whatever it was, it didn’t grab me. Surprisingly so.

Because I really enjoyed it. It’s about Sara, a young, rich, and extremely kind girl who is left to attend an all-girls boarding school. She’s prone to telling imagined stories, both to herself and any classmate that will listen. At first, they’re fanciful and fun, making the other girls laugh and stare at her in mesmerized wonder. But when her father unexpectedly passes away, leaving her penniless, her stories almost become necessary for surviving her new life, filled with labor and void of much food.

Let’s just say, as a writer, while I can’t identify with her, I can understand.

I think for most kids, it’s second nature to tell stories. Playing “pretend” is something you’re never taught how to do. It just happens. Your room becomes a castle or a cave, your toys loveable friends or inscrutable villains, depending on what your story needs. And finding friends that will follow you on your dreamed adventures is an amazing gift.

For me, when I wasn’t creating solitarily on my parent’s computer, I jumped between playing Barbie’s with the neighborhood girls and War with the boys. Believe it or not, the Barbie storylines took more deliberate, concentrated telling. The war stories, imagined while crammed behind a rock wall in preparation for battle, came much more naturally.

Then, as a kid gets older, physically or mentally, the stories become harder to believe but even more important to tell. For Sara, she struggled to see the point in continuing with her stories when life continued to remind her they weren’t, and would never be, real. Inevitably, though, she kept dreaming and eventually found joy again in her wasted life.

For me, my stories can become harder to believe because I must criticize and dissect and analyze every decision and element. As I imagine it is for most writers, every word I put to paper must be second-guessed. And while I live to tell stories, writing them sometimes seems like a pointless chore.

So I could wax poetic about this book, this story of a girl who wants desperately for her stories to be realized, finding me now when I’d appreciate it most, but that all sounds too corny to me. It really was just sitting on my shelf, and I needed something to read, so I grabbed it. But I’m glad I did. It was a good story of perseverance and strength. I really enjoyed it and the little girl who was obsessed with “make believe.” I enjoyed it even more that it all worked out in the end.

I Read: Stuart Little by E.B. White

This book had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, and it did not disappoint. It’s also not like this book needs another great review, but that’s what I’ll give it.

It’s not a traditional novel, in the sense that it doesn’t follow one narrative path. Rather, it’s a series of stories in the life of Stuart Little, beginning with his beginning. They’re all tied together by the reoccurring characters but are not all directly related.

And they’re all delightful. They make you laugh and completely forget you’re reading about events that happen to a mouse-sized boy. Most of the time, he’s just a boy on daring adventures. They were entertaining to this adult, but through the eyes of a child, I have to think they’d be enthralling. Whether he’s racing boats or zooming around in a real, Stuart-sized car, or even getting thrown out with the trash, his life comes across as ever exciting, if not ideal. I also like how the novel doesn’t end with all the ties perfectly complete, just the hope that they will be one day.

Definitely a classic for a reason!

I Read: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Now this book is closer to my style, if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I read it in a matter of days, not months. And while I didn’t love it, at least I liked it. Definitely getting closer.

It was an entertaining retelling of the classic Cinderella fairytale. I wasn’t wowed by it, though. And I hate to be that person to compare an author’s work to what will probably be what he/she is best known for, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wicked.

It had many of the same elements of Wicked I enjoyed: taking the fantastic and making it realistic, showing the reader a new perspective on an old tale, and practically forcing you to fall for the “villain.”

But for me it wasn’t as nuanced a novel. I was really impressed with how Maguire created an entirely new political layer for Wicked that added so much more depth to the entire story, making Dorothy’s appearance somewhat secondary to the story. With this novel, that wasn’t there for me. It seemed to me like the same Cinderella story with some additional mystery and a few new motivations revealed, but at its heart, the same story.

I still liked it. I rooted for the main “evil” stepsister and wanted her to end up with her love. I also appreciated the twist at the very end. But I don’t think it’s a story that will stick with me for very long.

On to the next one!

Why Do I Insist On Finishing Books I Don’t Like?

Once I start a book, I can’t stop reading it. You might think, ‘Yeah? Me too! I love to read!’ And I do too! But it isn’t that I love a book so much I can’t put it down. It’s that, whether I like the book or not, I must finish it. And I can’t tell if that’s a bad thing.

The latest example of my forcing a disliked book down my brain happened this year. And pretty much all of this year. For beginning on start date January 28th, in the year of our Lord, 2013, until this very day (dates courtesy of good reads), I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Yep, it took me over nine full months to read that book. And that’s fine. I’m a slow reader, generally, and this book is quiet long, so I suppose it’s to be expected. But more than that, it is an extremely dense novel. And one that I did not like, apologies to Mr. Eco.

At its core, The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery that takes place over a seven day period in 1327 at an Italian abbey where every day a monk is murdered. The main character and his master are investigators tasked with determining who is responsible.

Seems straightforward enough and, to me, as if it could be told in 200 or so pages. However, the novel is over 500. This is because there are pages and pages of religious, philosophical, and historical discussion in numerous sections that, while fascinating, do little to move the plot forward. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful pages with sentences that would make Joseph Conrad beam, but they are mind-numbingly detailed. For example, a character might see a tapestry of an apocalyptic scene and that moment becomes an eight page history on how the church has presented the end times up to that moment. Want more illustration? There are sections of dialogue that contain parenthesis. Parenthesis. In dialogue. Apparently Italians circa the 1300s could speak parenthetically. Who knew?

Now, I know and understand why it is considered a great work of literature, and why my Italian professor in college considered it the “great-Italian novel.” The language and prose are magnificent, and the simple ability of the author to sit down and compose that much minutiae on such rich topics is awe-inspiring to me.

But I’m a story girl. I like plot. And while this book might have vivid imagery and provide a thorough history lesson, to me it lacks plot. Or the plot it does have is buried under its parenthetical context mountain. Just too much to wade through to get to the story, which is why it took me nine months to read. I just couldn’t get excited to pick it up.

But, back to my original question, should I have forced myself to? Should I force myself to read a book I don’t like?

My entire life, the answer has been, ‘Yes. You started it, you should finish it, come hell or high water.’ I don’t know why, but that has always been my mentality. If I start something I finish it.

Nine months, though? I keep thinking about all the valuable time I could have been spent reading something else instead of wasting it on crawling through this book at a pace of two pages a day. There were times when I chose to clean and do laundry over reading this book, and reading is possibly my favorite pastime. I mean, that’s almost sacrilege for me. Why not just stop reading it and start something else?!

But then I finished it. And I felt awesome! I felt like I had slayed a dragon. ‘You didn’t get the best of me, you long, boring book! I conquered you and your 500 page dissertation on metaphysics!’

I won’t lie. There are definitely some pride feelings mixed into all this. Two kinds, really. First, pride in my ability to pick a good book. If I choose a book and don’t finish it, what does that say about me? Secondly, I have some pride in my perceived intellect, some snob-like characteristics. And now I can confidently say I’ve read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and hold my chin up as I do.

More importantly for me, the reason I force myself through these books is that I hate leaving things unfinished. There is a glint of hope that it will get better, which happens sometimes. (However, with this book I knew it was going to be rough from the start.) But more so, it’s the knowledge that I set out to do something, and I did it, even if that means sacrificing valuable reading time to the washing machine to do it. Maybe that makes me sound silly or crazy, but I guess I’m just one of those people that has to finish what they start. Come hell or high water.

We’re Talking About Autographs?!

I was watching the Braves Sunday night on ESPN when the breaking news hit that Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel was allegedly paid for signing autographs. My initial reaction was muted. “Well, that’s not good,” I thought, before returning to worrying about whether or not the Braves bullpen could hold a lead. After all, college athletes seem to be placed under investigation by the NCAA as often as networks launch new crime procedurals. (He makes a lot of movies.)

Apparently, though, my lack of overwhelming shock and outrage was wrong. WAY wrong. At least in ESPN’s eyes. Every third story on SportsCenter that night was about Manziel. They had full, team coverage of what happened, what this meant for his college season, what this meant for the Aggies, what this meant for his draft status (because signing autographs potentially hurts your throwing arm??), and, at the end, a throwaway, 30-second debate about if it’s fair that college kids can’t make money off their success.

As I was watching, I just kept thinking, we’re talking about autographs? I mean, we’re talking about autographs! We’ve got wall-to-wall coverage of a kid signing his name to a mini-helmet? I didn’t get why it was such a big deal.

Ok, that’s not true. I did. As an “amateur” college athlete, it’s illegal for Manziel to profit from his athletic endeavors, if he did in fact accept money for signing. And if he did, he could possibly be suspended for at least part of the Aggies’ season, which would be huge news. (You gonna suspend him for the Alabama game, NCAA? One of your biggest of the year? Really?)

But, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t get it. He allegedly accepted $7,500 for what? To buy rims for his car? How terribly nefarious. Thank you, NCAA, for saving the great game of college football from such malfeasance.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that the NCAA’s “amateurism” rules are what Manziel agreed to adhere to when he decided to play college athletics, like them or not, so he shouldn’t act like he exists beyond them.

But my knee jerk reaction to this story is to say, “Lay off the kid.” (Which is tough for me to say as a Longhorn.) He makes millions of dollars for his school. He should be allowed to make some for himself, too. After all, Texas A&M reportedly charged boosters tens of thousands just to sit at the same table as Manziel. And Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin saw his salary double to over $3M after last season’s Johnny Football inspired success. Surely we can let the kid earn some money to perform an Xzibit-less pimping of his ride, questionable spending priorities aside. (Hope you’re saving, too, Mr. Football.)

However, I don’t think the Aggies are to blame. (That’s even harder to say.) Yes, he’s making millions for them, but did you know, based on the latest data, they profit roughly $9M from their entire athletic program, which has a budget close to $90M. In that same story, USA Today reports that only 22 college athletic programs actually made any profit at all. College sports aren’t the cash cow they seem. They make a lot, but they spend a lot, too. Is it reasonable, then, to suggest all college athletic programs should compensate their athletes? (FYI, my alma mater is worth the most! Woohoo! We’re number 1… at something at least….)

I also agree with those that say colleges give a lot to their athletes when they provide them with free education, room, and board. Look at how big a story college loan debt has become. So, in that sense, it’s not like A&M is exploiting Manziel. He and his teammates give to A&M with their revenue and prestige generation, and A&M gives back with an education. (Resist desire to quip how worthless it is….)

No, I point my finger at everyone’s favorite culprit: the NCAA. Which is totally justified! I don’t understand what they have to gain by not allowing athletes to make money off their success? They can’t still be arguing that commercialization ruins sport. If so, than stop signing massive TV contracts, stop selling merchandise, and take the corporate names off the bowl games.

Are they worried the compensation won’t be fair and equitable, with some athletes, sports, and schools benefitting more than others? Or maybe they’re worried increased cash flow will attract unsavory, money-hungry stooges to their hallowed institutions? Or, worst of all, that players will stop playing solely for the “love of the game”?

And which of those above scenarios hasn’t happened already?

Those reasons are why I think college athletes should be able to earn endorsements and rewards like any other athlete. Athletic endorsement deals are typically merit based, earned by those who excel as a result of hard work and perseverance, both traits to be rewarded. Yes, the amount might be disproportionate for some, but stop trying to make everything equal. That’s not the American capitalist way, commie! (Note: That statement is in no way a personal endorsement of a political system.)

(Also, I know athlete endorsements aren’t exclusive to ability. I won’t deny personality and appearance have something to do with them. Why else is C.J. Wilson selling stuff on my TV?) (That’s mean.) (Also, don’t get me started on PED cheaters….)

Here’s an idea: why not have a percentage of the endorsement money these athletes earn go to the school? Why not have the University function like the player’s agent so the school gets a cut? That way, instead of Manziel’s high school buddy brokering an autograph signing, A&M’s athletic department is. And don’t think for a second these schools don’t have some smarmy dude capable of cut throat negotiations immediately at hand to do this. Look no further than their recruiting departments.

Heck, maybe the NCAA even gets a tiny cut. It could happen! I mean, the NCAA didn’t even allow athletic scholarships, that’s how “committed” they were to amateurism, so we know change is possible. Otherwise, right now, they kind of just look like some greedy so-and-sos who don’t want to share with the kids their making money off of. Remember, without student athletes, there is no NCAA. Why not let them have a piece of their pie?