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.

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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.

The Final Season: Was the Marathon Worth It?

Ok, so I took a much longer break than I meant to. Oops. But onwards and upwards.

When I finished my marathon blogging run of posting something for every game the Atlanta Braves played last season, I imagined my first post after the season would be a reflective one. After all, I did the marathon as a way to challenge myself to be more consistent about writing. Sure, it was a little a bit about my love for a team I’ve followed for over 20 years, but mostly it was about setting a tangible goal.

Was it worth it?

I think so. I posted 162 times over 6+ months, and, in terms of length, they were all legitimate posts, too. There were a couple times when I felt like just throwing up a picture with a witty comment and being done with it, particularly for the mid-week games on the West coast. (And, for a few of those, I must admit, I did post the next morning instead of waiting up for the end of the game.) But, no, I didn’t do that. I wrote full posts of around 1,000 words every time.

I wrote at the beginning of the marathon that I didn’t think the challenge would be finding stuff to write about, and I was right. I brainstormed a massive list of potential topics to pull from, and when I finished, there were still topics left.

However, I also wrote that I thought the real challenge, as it probably is for all writers, would be to make each post worth reading, and on that effort, I’m not sure I passed with flying colors.

Along that line, I told myself that once a post was up, there would be no editing. It was published. It was done. So I did very little reading back of what I posted. Of course I edited before I posted, and I did – a couple times – see something after I posted, like a misspelling, and allowed myself to change it. But for the most part, posted equaled finished.

That’s how my quality check pans out. It’s very easy to go back and read through some of my posts the purpose of reflection. And what do I find? The quality certainly varied. I think a lot of that had to do with the topic I chose for that day. It’s obvious, to me the reader, which topics really inspired me and were easy to approach, like those related to childhood memories just poured out of me, while other, more technical posts didn’t.

I also learned the quality of my work tends to suffer when it’s two in the morning and I’d rather be sleeping. Shocking, I know.  Same goes for when I was semi-sleeping and forcing myself to stay awake to finish. Those posts, and you can probably tell them from their lack of coherence, were some of the worst. That, friends, is called procrastination, and is, thankfully, not something I am prone to. But when you’re blogging for the 15th time in 17 days, it may not always be the most appetizing pursuit, so, yes, I was known to put off working on a post until after a game was over. And, of course, as divine punishment, I swear those were the nights I was stuck with a less than inspiring topic that seemed to stand between me and the page.

But that exercise did teach me a good lesson. While I may not enjoy writing on command, I can do it. It can be done. So, in that sense, there’s no excuse for not writing at least something, say, six out of seven days a week. Writing every day, whether it’s 500, 1,000 or 10,000+ words, can be done. It can be done early in the morning or late at night or on a lunch break. Even on the busiest of busy days, there are 30 minutes that can be cut out for writing.

I know this now, and I’ve found it easily implemented in my own life. I’m happy to say that habit I started has stuck with me, and I’ve written a lot over the past few months I haven’t been blogging, whether it was work on my book or on short stories I hope to post here soon.

So, because of that, I’m glad I made myself take on the crazy marathon. It gave me a clear goal, which I also learned is something I desperately need to be successful. It gave me a purpose for this blog, which helped to keep it going. And it showed me the concept of ‘sitting your butt in the chair’ truly is the only way to write. To be a writer, you have to write. Seems simple enough, yet it is a concept many find difficult to grasp. And you have to do it even on the days it’s the last thing in the world you want to be doing. Practice does make (closer to) perfect. And that’s all writing every day is. Not chiseling away on the next, great American novel. It’s just practice.

My final thought, which I have to say as I was focused on the Braves, is that it was sad to see the season end the way, via the extremely liberal “in-field” fly rule, the lack of opportunity to play more than one playoff game, and the farewell error from a certain, future Hall of Famer. But that’s ok – that team is young and full of talent. Next year should be a lot of fun. (Alas, hope springs eternal.) I doubt I’ll be documenting it, though. Onwards and upwards.

The Final Season: The Baseball Odyssey

Gianst 5 – Braves 2; CJ: 1-3, R, BB

So, I’ve noticed this baseball related trend, but it’s a little pretentious. Okay, it’s a lot pretentious, but I’ll share it with you anyway. If I was to segment the people in my life into categories, there seems to be one category where the percentage of people that love baseball would be significantly higher than any other category. The category: my writer friends.

I think, compared to the rest of the population, writers love baseball disproportionately more than other people. Seriously, it is uncanny how many writers I know that love baseball, but I have no hypothesis as to why that is. Maybe it’s because writers don’t mind wading through the minutiae, so to speak..

I know I do agree with the notion that it’s a thinking man’s (or wo-man’s) sport, so I also think a disproportionately large number of academics and heady folks love it as well. (And, yes, I am this pretentious normally.) I just had a good number of professors in college that were vocal about their baseball fandom.

Like I said, I don’t have a theory, but I have one possible explanation. I had a teacher, my 11th grade English teacher, that loved baseball. When she explained to me why, she said she loved it because she saw it is a metaphor for the great eternal battle to be “safe at home.” To her, it was a microcosm of the journey we’re all on to get to where we belong and that to get there we will have to overcome certain obstacles and challenges. And, in order to overcome those obstacles, we’ll usually have to take them on one at a time, as we take life one step at a time (or one base). Not to mention, she added, there would be those around us that would get in our way and even try to stop us. She compared it, and I think rightly so, to Homer’s The Odyssey.

And I would agree with that. It is an epic battle, a chess match. One says, ‘I want to get you out’ while the other says, ‘I want to get on base and pass this first obstacle.’ And only one will win that battle, with each trying to out think the other to know what to throw or what is being thrown. And sometimes it just comes down to brute force. Here’s my best pitch, see if you can hit it. Many, many opportunities there for the sport to mirror life.

Now, I don’t think that’s the reason most writers or academics or people in general like baseball. The example I was referring to was how I think people can project whatever meaning they want onto the game. (And it moves so slow, you can’t help but think about it.) It can be poetic. Brutal. Aggressive. Deceptive. It can be complex or it can be simple. I love the idea of baseball as visual representation of The Odyssey as much as I love this great quote from Bull Durham: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch ball, you the ball.” And that’s so true.

So, in short, I suppose that’s my theory as to why writers love baseball. In many ways, it’s a slow moving, blank canvas that us internalizers can have fun projecting onto.

 

The Final Season: My Almost Sports Career

Washington 8 – Atlanta 4; CJ: DNP

The losing continues, so I’m going to write about something completely unrelated today – me. First tidbit: I studied journalism at the University of Texas. But not your highbrow, hoity-toity journalism. I studied sports journalism. Why? Because I wanted to be a sports reporter. Obviously.

Around the second grade, one of my parent’s friends asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I answered ‘writer,’ because at that age I had already started sitting at the family computer for hours just typing away on my silly, little stories. The adult responded by saying, ‘Oh, you mean like a journalist. That’s a career you can have as a writer.’ Impressionable young me was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, I guess I want to be a journalist if that’s how someone can make a living writing.’ Okay, I probably didn’t responded exactly like that, but the conversation obviously made an impression on me, as I can still remember it almost verbatim 20+ years later.

And it’s pretty fair to say that I started at about that age telling people I wanted to be a journalist. Only writing about the boring news stuff my parents watched seemed terrible. I was never inspired to watch the evening news with them. But ESPN. That I could watch all day, every day. And I thought, the people on that channel are reporters, too, right? (Refrain from cynical answer.) That’s it, then. I’ll be a sports reporter.

And so I went for it. I became Sports Editor of my high school paper, and Sports Director of the student television station in college. One of my main responsibilities there was producing a weekly Longhorn sports highlight show, which I enjoyed immensely. The station also broadcast UT volleyball and softball games live, and I sideline reported for those. I had my dream, and I working hard for it.

But something strange happened after graduation. When it came time to get a job reporting, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to move to a small town in the North East and make $17,000 a year. I didn’t want to work weird hours, and on holidays, and have to ask annoyed athletes the same questions over and over again. The truth was, I just didn’t love it like I thought I would.

Plus the glimpse of the job I got while interning at a local station wasn’t the romanticized vision I had created as a child. It was all so… ordinary. I hadn’t really thought about the day-to-day grind and if I’d be willing to do that. I also hadn’t realized the stories would be the same year-to-year, just with new faces. It didn’t appeal to me like I thought it would. Like I said before, I didn’t love it, and I was a young idealist who thought that should be a component of a job.

I also hadn’t realized the extra challenge being a woman brought me, but I learned it firsthand in college. I watched all the guys around me get treated differently. Was told by multiple guys that when they saw me on TV they didn’t listen to what I said. One dude even told me that he disliked girls on TV when it came to sports, and he wished they’d just stop talking. How he never knew if he could believe the girl on the screen actually knew what she was talking about. Comments like those helped me see that I didn’t want to fight my way into a bear trap. Or bee’s nest. Or whatever analogy you want to use. Some women can do it, but I’m not a fighter or a trailblazer. I admire those that can, but it doesn’t appeal to me.

So, after school, I chose a different path and never looked back. Well, I shouldn’t say never. I am looking back now. And sometimes I do wonder if I made a mistake. Should I have at least tried reporting? Maybe for a year just to see if it sparked a desire after all. But then that would have altered the course of my life, and the idea of that makes the decision feel right.

And it was right. You know how I know? When I got that sports reporting job offer, I recoiled at the thought of living in a small town and making $17,000 a year, even if it was just, hopefully, temporary. I contrast that with the idea of making $17,000 a year writing fiction, and I’d take that it in a second, no hesitation. Heck, I’d be over the moon to make that much writing. And that’s taught me a good lesson: if you really love something, you’ll be content doing it for little to no compensation or recognition because you’re doing it for yourself, because it makes you feel complete.

Sometimes I joke and say that I blame the Atlanta Braves for all of it, for trying to be a sports reporter than not doing it. After all, becoming a fan of the team really cemented my love of following all sports, and that led to wanting to report on them. But I can’t. I mean, there’s no one to blame really. I was just a kid who loved sports and thought it would be cool to talk about them for a living. And I still think it would be. I just found something that I think would be a lot cooler. For me, at least.

Worthless Reviews: Holes by Louis Sachar

Worthless because, let’s be honest, it’s not like this book’s a new one.

 

This is going to be a quick post. Why? Because, what can I say about Holes? It’s one of my favorite books. Has been and always will be. I’ve read it many times and each time manages to extract authentic reactions from me, ranging from joy to excitement to anxiety. And for me, that’s one of the signs of a really good book, when it has layers I can pull back with each read, yet I always respond to it like I was discovering it for the first time.

Holes is about a young boy named Stanley Yelnats who is wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes, a pair of shoes he claims fell out of the sky while he was walking home. As punishment for his crime (of unluckily being in the wrong place at the wrong time), he is sent to Camp Green Lake where he must dig holes everyday under the watch of his erratic, determined Warden and her various henchmen. Soon after his arrival, it becomes apparent he is not there just to build character through digging but is really searching for something.

It’s an endearing book with a lot of heart. The language isn’t fancy. Sachar’s prose doesn’t dance pirouettes around the English language. Instead, he tells a direct, honest story about a boy growing older, stronger, and wiser as he maneuvers through life-changing (and threatening) situations. There are a few twists and turns, but nothing too shocking. To me, Holes is a character driven story, an example of a writer creating a character that readers become effortlessly enthralled with. Stanley is a kid you pull for and care deeply for without being tricked or pulled into his story. All of Holes is effortless. That’s the best word to describe it. Sachar makes writing Newberry Medal winning fiction look easy, as if anyone could do it – including myself.

Holes was certainly one of the books that inspired me to write. I finished it and thought, Hey, I can do this. I don’t have to be a literary genius to tell a good story. I don’t have to have an obsessive command of the English language or find new, poetic ways to describe the disappointed look on a child’s face. I can just tell my story in a straightforward way and people will like it, assuming I’ve done my part to make the character memorable.

And that’s why Stanley Yelnats continues to be one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. (By the way, how great is that name? Stanley Yelnats. Stanley spelled frontways and backways. A simple, yet ingenious idea. Something that makes you think, why didn’t I think of that? Yet another example of how Sachar makes this writing thing look easy.) It’s also why I read Holes whenever I’m in need of a reminder of how to make characters truly attractive – the same way I read A Wrinkle in Time for plot development. I love Holes and definitely think everyone should read it.