By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 18, 2017
A case could be made that many, many books and movies are about one thing and one thing only: getting Person X to say to Person Y, “I love you.”
Paul Newman and Robert Redford saying it in subtext in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
The trick is our characters can never use those blatant, overt words. That wouldn’t be cool.
It wouldn’t ring true to life.
And it wouldn’t possess the power and the impact we want.
In fiction, “I love you” has to come in subtext, not text.
Here’s one of the ways William Goldman did it in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
It’s the final scene. The outlaws are shot up and bleeding in a cramped hideout in a town square somewhere in Bolivia. Surrounding them, outside, are hundreds of uniformed, rifle-toting Federales. The instant our two “bandidos yanquis” step out through the door … well, we all know what’s coming.
I got a great idea where we should go next.
Well I don’t wanna hear it.
You’ll change your mind once I tell you.
It was your great ideas that got us here in the first place. I never wanna hear another one of your great ideas.
Australia. I figured secretly you wanted to know so I told you: Australia.
What’s so great about Australia?
They speak English there.
BUTCH tells Sundance about the banks, the beaches, and the women Down Under.
It’s a long way, though, isn’t it?
Aw, everythings’s always gotta be perfect with you.
I just don’t wanna get there and find out it stinks, that’s all.
In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, junior exec Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has been in love with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine) for the whole movie. But Shirley is blind to Jack’s infatuation. Instead she’s in a doomed affair with married exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred McMurray). When Shirley tries to poison herself after Sheldrake dumps her, Jack saves her life by getting her stomach pumped and sitting up all night with her playing cards. Next day he stands up to Sheldrake (who’s his boss), quits his job, etc., all the while believing Shirley still has no romantic interest in him.
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment”
In the final scene Shirley sees the light, races to Jack’s apartment just in time to catch him before he packs up and leaves town.
What’d you do with the cards?
Shirley gets the deck. sits beside Jack on the couch.
What about Mr. Shelkdrake?
We’ll send him a fruitbcake every Christmas. Cut.
He cuts a deuce, she cuts a ten.
I love you, Miss Kubilek
You got a two, I got a ten. I win.
Did you hear what I said, I absolutely adore you.
Shut up and deal.
Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot”
Billy Wilder topped this of course with the last line of Some Like It Hot, when Jerry (Jack Lemmon), hiding out from the mob in drag with a girl band, explains to his zillionaire suitor Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) that he can’t marry him.
You don’t understand, Osgood. I’m a man!
Well, nobody’s perfect.
Subtext beats text every time.
That’s love. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 11, 2017
We said a few posts ago that sometimes we, as writers, have to tart real life up.
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker on the evaporator farm on Tatooine
Real life is too ordinary.
It’s too interior.
It’s too boring.
We have to heighten the drama, ramp up the stakes. Otherwise readers won’t care.
But how, exactly, do we perform this wizardry?
Do we just dream up wild stuff—sex, violence, zombies—and hurl it into the stew willy-nilly?
How do we know what’s appropriate?
How can we tell when we’ve gone too far?
The answer brings me back to my favorite subject: theme.
The principle is:
We may fictionalize but only on-theme.
I was watching the movie Midnight Special (2016) last night. Have you seen it? It’s good. The film stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. The plot follows a young boy who possesses mysterious powers as he flees apocalyptic cultists and the NSA, protected by his father. I won’t spoil the climax for you except to say that it is wildly fictionalized … and it works completely.
Because the filmmakers fictionalized on-theme.
Midnight Special is about a father’s love for his son and the passage the father must endure to face ultimate separation. That’s the core. That’s what the story’s really about.
Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in “Midnight Special”
An alternative version could have been told very simply: a special young boy gets sick and dies, despite heroic efforts to save him by his father and mother. Perhaps that was the real story from which Midnight Special evolved.
The filmmakers ramped up the tale’s power by making the boy special special special, i.e. possessed of powers that can bring satellites down out of the sky and cause the entire US government to chase him halfway across the country.
We may fictionalize all we want, as long as we stay on-theme.
When Ernest Hemingway gave Jake Barnes, his fictional protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, an emasculating war wound, he was heightening reality indeed. But that heightened reality was 100% on-theme.
The theme of The Sun Also Rises is the soul-devastation that the horrors of WWI wreaked upon Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” contemporaries. Hence the wound.
There’s a storytelling axiom in Hollywood:
If horses can fly, you’ve got a story. If everything can fly, you’ve got a mess.
When we fictionalize on-theme, we heighten the drama legitimately. When we make sh*t up off-theme, we just produce craziness.
The first principle we talked about in this series was
Make the internal external
Or put another way
Make the invisible visible.
We can make ourselves cowboys or princesses or private eyes as long as that external story is on-theme with our real-life internal one.
What was Rocky but Sylvester Stallone’s fictionalized-on-theme rendition of his own struggles as an unknown trying to get noticed in the movie biz?
What was Luke Skywalker’s journey from the evaporator farm on Tatooine to saving the galaxy as a Jedi knight, except George Lucas’ own odyssey from his boyhood in Modesto, California to entertainment immortality? For that matter, what was American Grafitti?
Fictionalize as much as you want, but keep it on-theme.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 4, 2017
Remember when Michael Jordan got into trouble for referring to his teammates on the Chicago Bulls as “my supporting cast?”
William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”
He was, of course, only telling the truth. (Though Scotty Pippen, we must admit, has a right to be a little miffed.)
But back to you and me and our novels based on our real lives. What about our spouses and kids and bosses and friends and the other crazy characters we’re going to write about? They may not like to think of themselves this way, but ..
They are supporting characters in our story.
Putting their egos aside, the question becomes
How do we as writers portray these individuals?
Are we free to change them? Can we put dialogue into their mouths that the real-life personalities never said or would never say? Can we have them do things that they didn’t do or wouldn’t do in real life?
Yes, yes, and yes.
We said in an earlier post that you and I, crafting a fictional version of our real-life story, have to detach ourselves emotionally from our real selves (if we ourselves are the hero of the story we’re telling). We need to step back and gain perspective. We must be able to see our real-life self coolly and objectively, the way a stranger would see him or her. Then and only then can we write that character on the page.
Same for supporting characters.
Your mother Joann, as soon as you start to write about her, has ceased to be Joann. She is now “Joann.” Your feckless ex-husband Dwayne has now become “Dwayne.” (Or whatever name you choose to call him.)
Let’s return for a moment to my favorite subject: theme.
Flashing back to our basic principles of storytelling, we recall that
The protagonist embodies the theme.
And that principle’s corollary:
Every supporting character represents an aspect of the theme.
(By the way, this same principle applies not just to characters, but to animals, to inanimate objects, to Jack Nicholson’s sliced-up nose in Chinatown, and to William Holden’s six-gun in The Wild Bunch. None of these exists only as itself. Each represents an aspect of the theme.)
In The Knowledge, my cat Teaspoon (the fictional version of my real-life cat Mo) represented my character’s Muse. In other words, an aspect of the theme.
In The Knowledge, the city of New York represented the greater creative life, both internal and external, that I (my character, Stretch) was trying to learn to navigate. So did the city of London.
The fictional Nicolette represented a realized artist. She was the ideal that Stretch was trying to achieve. Again, an aspect of the theme.
The fictional Peter represented an artist who went too far into the potential insanity of the creative process. His fate stood for the dark side of this enterprise. Like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, he represented the fear Stretch had for his own future.
What about the real people upon whom these characters were based? Were they exactly as The Knowledge portrayed them?
The real woman upon whom Nicolette was based was a true, realized artist. But she never read me the Riot Act like she did in Chapter 32 in The Knowledge. Her diatribe in that chapter is a straight-up recital of the book’s theme. I, the writer, put those words into “Nicolette’s” mouth.
This is exactly what you have to do with your mom Joann and your ex-husband Dwayne.
What does “Joann” represent in your story? What aspect of the theme does “Dwayne” stand for? Should there be a scene where “Joann” dumps a platter of steaming spaghetti down the front of “Dwayne’s” trousers? Should “Dwayne” dive into the frigid waters of Sheepshead Bay to save “Joann” when she spills off the stern of your second husband’s fishing boat?
Yes, if the scenes mean something to the story. Yes, if they are on-theme. Yes, if what Joann represents and what Dwayne represents come together in that way as part of your story.
This is how a writer thinks.
This is how a writer structures a story.
The real Joann may be pissed off (or she may be delighted) by the Pasta Scene or the Sheepshead Bay Rescue. But that should be no concern to you, the writer. And it certainly won’t mean a thing to the reader.
You are telling a story about “yourself” and “Joann” and “Dwayne” and all the other nutty inhabitants of your own nutty life. Your fidelity is to that story—and to the fortunate strangers who will read it.
The real Joann and the real Dwayne? They’ll just have to get over it.