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ARCHIVES OF December, 2015

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Make Your Hero Suffer

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 30, 2015

[Down to the last two days of our Black Irish Christmas Special—the 7-Book Megabundle for Writers. Keep a couple for yourself and spread the rest around to “worthy recipients.”]

 

There’s a story about Elvis:

The King instinctively understood the need for the hero to suffer

The King instinctively
understood the need for the hero to suffer

He was about to make his first movie (“Love Me Tender”) and he was getting a little nervous. He phoned the director and asked to speak with him privately.

“What is it, Elvis? You look upset. Is there anything you want to ask me?”

“Yes,” said Elvis. “Am I gonna be asked to smile in this movie?”

The director was taken aback. No actor, he said, had ever asked him that question. “Why do ask that, Elvis?”

“I’ve been watching James Dean’s movies and Marlon Brando’s, and I notice they never smile. I don’t wanna smile either.”

Have you ever noticed how the most emotionally involving books and movies all have heroes whom the authors put through hell? Cool Hand Luke, The Grapes of Wrath, The Revenant. Mildred in Mildred Pierce, Sethe in Beloved, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

One of my favorite books is The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. It’s the true story of the German retreat before the Russians on the Eastern front in WWII. Talk about suffering. Yet when friends asked how I liked it, I replied, “I love it.” The more the heroes suffered, the more deeply their travail hooked me.

As writers, you and I may sometimes be tempted to go easy on our protagonists. After all, we like them. They’re our heroes. They may even be thinly-veiled versions of ourselves.

But giving our heroes a break is the most destructive thing we can do.

Instead, pour on the misery. Afflict them like God afflicted Job. Beat them up like Karl Malden did to Brando in One-Eye Jacks or Gene Hackman did to Clint Eastwood (not to mention Morgan Freeman) in Unforgiven. Torture them emtionally like Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven or Still Alice. Break their hearts like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (or any, or all, of Ms. Streep’s other movies.)

Readers will love it.

Audiences will love it.

Think of your lead character as if he or she were an actor. Actors love to suffer. They win Oscars for it. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.

Luke Skywalker suffers.

Han Solo suffers.

Even James Bond suffers.

The trick to suffering inflicted on the hero, however, is it must be on-theme.

We can’t just piles agonies willy-nilly on our protagonists (though that will work too.) Their ordeal has to be focused. It must resonate with the story’s theme.

Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa." The fashion was great, but she still had to suffer

Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa.” The fashion was great, but she still had to suffer

The theme in Out of Africa is personal possession. Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen is obsessed with owning what she loves, as her lover Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton teases her in the script by Kurt Luedtke:

ROBERT REDFORD

My Kikuyu. My Limoges. My farm. It’s an awful lot to own, isn’t it?

In the end of course Karen loses everything including Finch Hatton. It works powerfully in the drama because her suffering is on-theme.

The theme in Cool Hand Luke is authority, specifically the authority of society imposed by force. The prison captain, played by Strother Martin, spells it out for the convicts on the road gang:

STROTHER MARTIN

You run one time, you got yourself one set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ’cause you gonna get your mind right.

Luke, played by Paul Newman, refuses to get his mind right. All his suffering comes directly from that. That’s what makes it so powerful. It is on-theme.

"The Man With No Eyes" draws a bead on Luke

“The Man With No Eyes” draws a bead on Luke

Cool Hand Luke is really the Christ story set in the early 50s in a Florida prison camp. The protagonist, as always, embodies the theme—the refusal to submit to earthly authority—and he, like Jesus, is crucified by the system.

We’ll explore this topic in greater depth next week.

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
16 Comments

What It Takes

What It Takes

The Fat Guy in the Red Suit Knows the Deal

By Callie Oettinger | Published: December 25, 2015

Photo credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Photo credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Do you ever feel like a kid at times and wonder how you got here, to this adult place?

Two weeks ago, a friend and I went down that rabbit hole.

A young woman he manages at work is staring down a fork in her road. She doesn’t know what to do next. Wants more money, more responsibility, more of all the usual things…

She looks at him and sees an old guy (anyone over 30 in her eyes). He looks inside and sees a kid. He’s still laughing at the same things he did when he was 12 and his tastes, while they’ve evolved, aren’t too far off 12 either. The same things tend to excite and scare him, too. He’s just better at coping these days. But… When he looks in the mirror… He understands the “old” she sees.

He asked her to stay put for a little while and to learn.

Why?

“You’re just as smart as I am,” he explained. “You could probably do my job. The difference between us that matters isn’t that I’m older or smarter. It is that I’ve done my job and your job.”

In other words, he’s had more opportunities to fail and learn. She sees the success and money. He knows the success came because failures taught him to anticipate pitfalls — and those failures came because he put in the time at various levels to get to the top.

Another example:

I have eleven years of Santa pics with my kids. Ten of them are with the same Santa.

When you look at him, he’s an older guy with a great smile and a beautiful, natural silver beard — the kind that doesn’t come off via a tot’s tug.

There are plenty of older men who could fit the bill, but why don’t they?

There’s more to being Santa than putting on the red suit. Just ask Doris Walker.

(more…)

Posted in What It Takes
11 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Think of This Movie as a Sausage”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 23, 2015

[Don’t forget the huge savings on our Black Irish Christmas Special—the 7-Book Megabundle for Writers. Keep a couple for yourself and spread the rest around to “worthy recipients.”]

A few years ago I was working on a “B”-movie at Warner Bros. There was a car chase in the script, and the director, who was young and on fire to do something really special, came up with an idea that he thought would take that scene from good to great. He went to the office of the Warners’ exec who was in charge of the production (and thus controlled the budget) and made an impassioned, on-his-feet plea for an extra X thousand bucks, just to make that one scene a showstopper.

Anne Hathaway, the original.

Anne Hathaway, the original.

The exec listened patiently without saying a word. Then he stood, crossed to the director, put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Bruce, think of this movie as a sausage. It’s just another link and you’re grinding it out.”

(This is all totally true, by the way).

At the time I remember thinking, “This is Hollywood moviemaking at its cheapest, laziest, most cynical worst.” I was outraged.

But a few days later I got to thinking, “You know, the exec is right. This movie is just a sausage, and we are just grinding it out.”

On the other hand, I like sausages.

Why not make a good sausage?

Why not make a great sausage?

Whaddaya think? Was War and Peace a sausage? Was Hamlet?

On the one hand, they definitely were. Both were hard slogs, long grinds. Both required serious, workmanlike patience and tenacity. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ll bet Will Shakespeare was working at the Old Globe with a producer/financier whose point of view was not far off from that of our exec at Warners. He, the Bard, was probably writing two or three other plays simultaneously, pitching three or four more at the Royal Court and the Dramatists’ Guild, while fending off Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who was challenging his authorship (along with Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and William Stanley, the Earl of Derby), all the while operating on four hours of sleep, not to mention dealing with crazy actors, late payments of royalties, his landlord clamoring for the rent, the tax collector seeking overdue imposts, while trying to maintain a harmonious relationship with Anne Hathaway (the original one), his wife.

I can picture Will, dashing from a rehearsal or a table read of his next comedy back to his cubby at home so he could return to work grinding out HamletHamlet was Shakespeare’s twenty-second play. It came between Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Was there an evening when the playwright smashed his quill pen into his writing desk and, gnashing his teeth, troubled deaf heaven with this bootless cry: “Damme! This sausage is killing me! Forsooth, lemme just grind it out and get it done with!”

What I’m trying to say is, in the end, I came very much to appreciate our Warner exec’s point of view.

Of course we’re gonna work hard on our next book/movie/startup.

Of course we’re gonna beat our brains out to make our stuff great.

Of course we’ll obsess. Of course we’ll go OCD. Of course we’ll drive everyone around us crazy.

But maybe it’s okay once in a while to pause and remember, “It is only a sausage and we are just grinding it out.”

In the end, I hear, we’re all gonna be sausage. So maybe hanging onto a sense of humor is a happy antidote to preciousness and to taking our work and ourselves too seriously.

P.S. the executive in this story (I’ll spare him the embarrassment of naming him) had done a number of good movies before the one we were working on, and he went on (he’s still going strong) to do other seriously excellent films afterward. He was, and is, by no means a frivolous player or a hack.

Maybe he understood something that the rest of us didn’t.

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
14 Comments
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