Friday, June 29, 2012

What Writers Can Learn From Snow White and the Huntsman

Visually compelling but short on lots of story elements.
 I’ve just watched Snow White and the Huntsman and I emerged from the cocoon of the movie theatre a mite confused. Was it an action movie? A love story that didn’t get off the ground? Why were the characters so confused? Why did no one have any real motivation except the Huntsman and his was simple: money. Why did minor elements such as the amazing Troll and the wonderfully cantankerous Dwarves steal the show?

My YA daughter, a stalwart Kristen Stewart fan (thanks to Twilight) countered my every criticism with, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Then I realised how much was just not that good, and how a movie’s failings (visual book thing again) can translate to the page for authors. So, what can we learn from Snow White and the Huntsman?

I read a few reviews to help me understand why I did not enjoy this visual feast, for a visual feast it is. From the red blood, to the white snow, to the raven black elements, to the knights in silvery shining armour racing along the beach with swords drawn, all the beauty is there … but it cannot sustain what is essentially a great story told poorly.

Great action sequences!
 Synopsis: Snow White is the princess of Tabor. After his wife's death, King Magnus marries the beautiful Ravenna after rescuing her from the Dark Army, an invading force of glass soldiers. Ravenna—who is in fact a powerful sorceress and the Dark Army's master—kills Magnus on their wedding night. As Ravenna seizes control of the kingdom, Duke Hammond escapes the Castle with his son William, but is unable to save Snow White. Snow White is then locked away in a tower of the castle.

Real scene stealers!
 The kingdom declines under Ravenna's rule as she periodically drains the youth from young women in order to maintain a spell once cast by her mother, which allows her to keep her beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that Snow White is destined to destroy her unless Ravenna consumes the young girl's heart, which will make her immortal. Ravenna orders her brother Finn to bring her Snow White but she escapes into the Dark Forest, where Ravenna has no power. Eric the Huntsman, a drunken widower who has survived the Dark Forest, is brought to Ravenna who orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White. In exchange, she promises to revive his deceased wife Sarah. Duke Hammond learns that Snow White is alive and has fled into the Dark Forest, and his son William, Snow White's childhood friend, later infiltrates Finn's band as a bowman to find her.

The Huntsman locates Snow White in the Dark Forest but Finn admits that Ravenna cannot resurrect the dead. The Huntsman then helps Snow White to escape, promising to escort her to Duke Hammond's castle in exchange for a reward of gold. They meet the dwarves who just about steal the show, and thereafter it’s on to the Duke’s castle to round up an army to defeat the evil Queen.

Wonderful fairy tale troll!
 Fairy tales are part of the dark mythological underbelly of civilisation, and many lessons and social commentaries exist today in these handed down tales. In like fashion, many books are simply repeats of or expansions upon eternal themes such as the quest/journey/coming of age etc. Anne R. Allen says: Experts don’t agree on the exact number of narrative plots, but there aren’t many. (Good post in case you think someone like James Patterson stole your plot!)

So how can we look at this film and learn some writing lessons?

Let’s check out the reviews. These comments (I've underlined the most telling) can be applied to writing.

Rotten Tomatoes: While it offers an appropriately dark take on the fairy tale that inspired it, Snow White and the Huntsman is undone by uneven acting, problematic pacing, and a confused script.

The Washington Post: Michael O’Sullivan says: Too many bad apples spoil a tale. Overlong, overcrowded, overstimulating and with an over-the-top performance by Charlize Theron as the evil queen Ravenna, the movie is a virtual orchard of toxic excess, starting with the unnecessarily sprawling cast of characters. Snow White and the Huntsman feels less like a movie than a deadly cocktail of movie clichés, all of which have been thrown into a blender, set to ‘slow’ and pureed for two hours.

The San Francisco Chronicle: “…which takes everything mythic about ‘Snow White’ and pounds it out until it's flat and dead. It takes something whose truth is elusive and turns it into a movie that's obvious and trivial. The fairy tale … suffers from a problem in its rhythm. It's not that its pace is too slow, but that it's too regular, and this lack of syncopation makes it feel slow.


A Writer’s Digest article advises: Analyze successful stories. They (writers) ask questions when reading and use their findings to help strengthen their work. For example:

• How does the writer make me want to turn the page?
• Why am I drawn to the lead character?
• When are the stakes raised?
• How does the writer integrate minor characters?
• What makes a scene work?
• What’s the key to conflict?
• How does the writer handle dialogue?

In my humble opinion, the problem with Snow White is that loads of bad stuff eclipsed loads of good stuff. A cleaner, simpler story, tighter pacing, consistent characterization, believable motivation, a good sub-text and backstory, and quicker links to the actually great action scenes would have transformed this film into a iconic version of a tried and tested tale of good triumphing over evil. People don’t get tired of a good story told well.

How well are you telling your story?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beware the Expert Reader!

Convincing the Expert Reader is hard, because whatever you write, there's always an expert reader waiting to pounce. But expert readers are good for writers. Yes, they really are because when you write with an expert reader in mind, you get your facts straight.

In many movies and books, some of the characters do the most uncharacteristic (or plain dumb) things. (See my previous post discussing the movie Prometheus) I hate it when something a character says or does just sounds wrong, or else I know it cannot be done. I happened upon a great article by John Yeoman of Writer’s Village: How can you make your characters’ actions appear plausible?

Many a good story has collapsed because a character did something that just didn't ring true.

Tom Hanks looks exhausted!
The plot of The Da Vinci Code, absurd enough from the start, topples into farce about halfway through the story. Why? All the action—spanning 180,000 words—is supposed to take place within the space of just 24 hours. Yet in that brief time the characters have run, flown and driven halfway across Europe and England.

Nobody ever sleeps! (Have you noticed?) By chapter 105, Prof Langdon is still making brilliant deductions, having been awake for 30 hours. Somehow, it doesn't 'ring true'...

Beware the expert reader

Every story has an expert reader who will embarrassingly point out that, for example, your 25 stone villain just could not have wriggled down a 15-inch wide manhole in a New York street, circa 1920, while disguised in a fire-fighter's uniform. But if you get even the tiny details right, that expert reader—highly impressed—will buy everything you write thereafter. And your story will also convey the 'ring of truth' to everyone else.

Q: How do you enhance your story with a 'ring of truth', effortlessly?
A: Make your story plausible and your characters 'real'

Helpful Hint: If you want your character to do something unusual, do it yourself.

Otherwise, you will never be able to convey—convincingly—how the experience looks, feels, hears, smells, or tastes to the character. True, you might not wish, personally, to flee a drug-crazed axman or abseil one-handed down the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. But if it’s do-able, do it.

When I wanted my character to rescue a heron snarled high in an ancient elm, I scaled my plum tree. After ten feet, my hair was thick with dust, leaves, and insects. (I had never realised how dusty tree bark can become in dry weather.) My trousers grew green with mould and I became massively perforated like St Bartholomew with little twigs. Of course, I then got stuck. (Branches are never as close to hand in real life as they are in fiction.) My wife had to rescue me with the window cleaner's ladder.

On another occasion, I needed a thief to climb an old staircase with a lantern in his hand. So I did exactly that. I found it was necessary to step on the inside of the stairwell to avoid telltale creaking noises and to breathe very slowly (ditto). I also had to tread on the balls of my feet (ditto) and to balance myself on the banister by my left elbow. (I didn’t want to leave tell-tale finger marks.)

Have you ever dragged yourself across an attic floor, gibbering? In a different tale, I decided to have my protagonist explore the eaves of an old castle in search of dark family secrets. Luckily, I live in an old house. So I dragged myself across a blanket of 18th century dust. My knee went through one of the ceiling planks. Below it, I found an orange—perhaps the lunch of some bygone builder. The orange was entirely hollow. Its inside had withered away to leave only a perfect mummified shell. It nicely symbolised my fictional family—immaculate before the gaze of the world but rotten within.

You can't make these details up. You have to discover them.

So if a detective finds the full mark of a flat foot on a dusty stair, I realized, it had probably been put there for a deceptive purpose. Because people typically climb stairs on the balls of their feet. All these little points of observation found their way into my story.

When historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick sets her stories in medieval castles, she visits them—with camera, notebook, and tape measure in hand. If she tells you that her hero in 1395 wriggled out of a kitchen window of Ludlow Castle that was exactly 15 inches wide, 16 feet above the courtyard and ten paces from the main gate, you can trust her. She’s measured it.

Climb that castle wall first!

That’s one reason she has a loyal readership. Apparently, some readers make a point of visiting the locations of her novels, just to check her measurements!

Don’t imagine it. Do it. Walk your story, as far as sanity permits. And readers will then believe you and your story.

So there you have it, dear writers (and readers). Never guess how long/high/light/far/heavy etc. something is. Do it yourself! Run from the Louvre to the Opera House (The Da Vinci Code), climb that mediaeval castle wall if possible, shimmy up that tree and really try to rescue the cat (Trust me, they don’t cooperate).

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Writers Can Learn From Prometheus!

So, what can writers learn from Prometheus?

I just watched the new Ridley Scott film Prometheus. Is it good? It’s great. But is it good? No, not really, if you’re interested in the story, the fact that it’s the prequel to the wildly successful Alien franchise, and if you’re a stickler for tying up loose ends. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind threads not being carefully tied up by the end of a film or book, then don’t panic. Sometimes it’s good just to go along for the ride. But if you’re the pernickety kind of person that all writers should be, then pay attention.

Story: Set in the late 21st century, the story centres on the crew of the spaceship Prometheus as they follow a star map discovered among the remnants of several ancient Earth cultures. Led to a distant world and an advanced civilization, the crew seeks the origins of humanity, but instead discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race.

 Now read this Forbes review, which posed many of the questions I asked myself as I walked out the theatre. How, why, when, why not, no, really, you can’t be serious, oh, please! – all the questions/comments readers/viewers should never have to ask at the end of a book/movie.

So, the lesson writers can learn from Prometheus is this: keep a tight hold on your story. Grab it by the tail and don’t let it go, not for a second.

Fatal Flaw #1: Unanswered Questions

Helpful Hint: Answer every question and tie up every thread by the end of your book. A nifty way of doing this is to make a synopsis of each chapter once you have written it. Then when you have finished your manuscript, and the accompanying synopsis for each chapter, read the manuscript backwards (yep, backwards) and check if you have answered every single question that an alert reader might raise. How did Character A get the amazing artifact? How or why did Character B get motivated to do whatever? Is the secret everyone’s been trying to discover actually worth all the trouble people took to conceal it? As you edit your own work, ask the questions as each character confronts them, and then write them down. By the end of your book, go back, read the questions, and answer them. If you can’t, then your reader can’t.

Fatal Flaw #2: Characters Doing Uncharacteristic Things

Helpful Hint: This was a big problem for me in the movie and so much so that the characters’ sometimes-idiotic behaviour actually diminished their authenticity for me. You’re asking readers (or in this case, moviegoers) to suspend their disbelief and join you in an incredible story that will move/excite/anger/do whatever to engage their emotions. So, make sure your characters behave like real people and that they don’t do things that are uncharacteristic just because you have to make your story move along.

Did I like the movie? I LOVED it, until I started asking myself all these niggling questions. But, I still loved it. I'll probably buy the DVD.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Can Facts be Fascinating?

Can non-fiction be fascinating? This sounds like a strange question, but the answer (depending on the book, of course) can be yes. I have been enthralled by the story of the unsolved murder of Charles Bravo ever since I saw a BBC documentary on the subject. I recently read a few reviews of the book Death at the Priory on Goodreads and the reviews themselves were so interesting that finally I bought the book. It could be that murders are fascinating in themselves, especially unsolved crimes. Numerous books abound on the topic of the identity of Jack the Ripper, for example. Forensic science has improved thousand-fold with the development of DNA, fingerprinting, and the various (forgive me!) CSI-style techniques now available. However, I’m sure even Horatio would have a problem solving this crime.

Charles Bravo (1845 - 21 April 1876) was a British lawyer who was fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876. The case is still sensational, notorious, and unresolved. It was an unsolved crime committed within an elite Victorian household at The Priory, a landmark house in Balham, London. The reportage eclipsed even government and international news at the time. Leading doctors attended the bedside, including Royal physician Sir William Gull, and all agreed it was a case of antimony poisoning. The victim took three days to die but gave no indication of the source of the poison during that time. Was it suicide, accidental self-poisoning, or murder? No one was ever charged for the crime.

His wealthy wife Florence had previously been married but had been separated from her first husband (who later died) because of his affairs and violent alcoholism. The impetuous Florence had also enjoyed an extramarital affair with a fashionable society doctor, the much older Dr. James Manby Gully, who was also married at the time. Her affair became public knowledge and Florence fell out of favor with her family and society. In order to reenter society, she married Charles Bravo. The marriage appeared to be doomed from the start. It was whispered that Charles had married Florence for her money, but the wealthy Florence had opted to hold onto her assets, a choice provided by new laws in England at the time (Married Women's Property Act 1870). This financial imbalance led immediately to tensions within the marriage. Police enquiries in the case revealed Charles's behavior towards Florence as being controlling, mean, and violent. Florence also experienced several miscarriages in quick succession, but Charles brutally persisted in forcing her to keep trying for an heir. However, given the nature of the man, there was no shortage of people in the Bravo household with motives for poisoning Charles Bravo.

Two inquests were held and the sensational details were considered so scandalous that women and children were banned from the room while Florence Bravo testified. The first returned an open verdict. The second inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder; however, nobody was ever arrested or charged. The household broke up after the inquest ended and the twice-widowed Florence moved away, dying of alcohol poisoning two years later.

Over a hundred years later, author James Ruddick embarked upon his own in-depth investigations in a case that reads like a modern page-turner. Drawing on detailed court and newspaper records, archives, family papers and letters, and interviews with surviving relatives, he has unearthed a wealth of information that gives conclusive evidence as to various suspects' motives and opportunities. His travels locally and internationally yielded comments from surviving family friends and local inhabitants. Medical research also gives tantalizing hints as to why, if it was not suicide or accidental self-poisoning, Bravo did not say whom he thought was the poisoner.

This is a fantastic read and I could not put the book down. The author has found such compelling evidence to exonerate some particular suspects, evidence that was never investigated all that time ago. It points out the flaws in policing methods of the day, as well as how social perceptions of the time influenced popular thinking. Ruddick give a deep and, at times, sensitive insight into the personalities of the main players, showing how they were trapped by their own natures (the headstrong spoiled Florence and the dominant Charles) as well as by the social mores and actual laws of the era. It is also a fascinating insight into the stultifying, repressive atmosphere of Victorian England, and the sad situation of many women of all social classes. Detective novel, historical docu-drama, and police thriller... call it what you will, I highly recommend this book to all readers with a penchant for detective and mystery novels. Draw your own conclusions...the author gives plenty of evidence for and against!