Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stealing Story

By Jay Stringer

I've said this many times -here and during interviews- that most of my influences come from film, comics and music. I came to love prose, but by that point I'd already picked up a lot of lessons from the other forms of storytelling.

I've noticed that whenever I'm writing a book, there are certain lessons -and in some cases certain scenes- that I always think back to. There are beats and tricks I learned from script writers and singers that I take with me into every project. I can see the traces of them in everything I do, even if the most obvious forms of them usually get cut out after the first draft, once I've found the story and don't need the 'tricks' anymore.

I thought I'd mention a few of them.

1. The Trick Beginning.

"What time is it?"

Everyone seems to remember The Usual Suspects as a film with a trick ending. They remember the reveal, and the walk, and talk about it having a great twist. From a storytelling point of view, however, it's actually a film with a trick beginning. Everything about the film is in service of that ending. The trick is pulled a couple of hours before, and everything that follows is designed to distract you from something that's blindingly obvious. If the question of the story is Who is Keyser Soze? the viewer figures it out in minutes. What the script does is show you a character dying, and then very quickly convince you that what you saw was wrong. You spend much of the film asking how did Keaton pull this off? It leaves the real answer to the real question out in pain sight, and turns the story into a mystery by making you ask the wrong questions.

And what's more, it only really has to pull this trick once.

Many mystery stories try and throw you off with a new question every five chapters, or to throw a kitchen sink full of red herrings at you. In my opinion, a strong mystery story really only has to throw you off once, and then spend the rest of it's time essentially playing fair, waiting for you to spot the obvious. I find an honesty and a simplicity in a well told mystery that I don't find in some of the poorer ones. And if you've read some of my crime stories, perhaps you might see echoes of this trick. And am I worried about telling you that I do this? No. That's all part of the fun. Chris Nolan put all of the answers to The Prestige  in the first three or four shots.

2. The Bar Scene

"Now you're gettin' nasty."

There is one scene that I'll write some variation on during the first draft of every book. Or, I have done in every book so far. The scene has also been cut by the time each of them makes it to the final draft, but having them in during the early stages helps me to find things that I need.

It's one of my favourite scenes in all of cinema. Indiana Jones and Renee Belloq in the bar during Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Jones is blind drunk, and angry, and grieving. Belloq is...well....Belloq. If you've seen the film you know the scene I'm talking about, and if you've not seen it then chances are you'll have seen a variation on it.

Jones and Belloq start the film in pretty much the same place. Both are mercenaries. both travel the world desecrating graves and holy sites, both get paid for what they do. As much as the film lures into following Jones, for the first half of the story he's not really a better person than Belloq. He's moody, he uses people, he fails at almost everything and he's clearly acted very badly to Marian in the past (and let's not try and think too much about the age difference between the two, and how old Marian would have been during their previous romance.) Neither of them serve a higher purpose, and neither are working for a government that will tell them the truth.

During the bar scene things shift. For the first time we start to see daylight between the two of them. Belloq plants his loyalties firmly down on one side, Jones on the other, and we now know what their missions are for the rest of the film. The other fun element is that through the whole scene Belloq is both telling the truth and lying. He's right in everything that he says about Jones and himself. They are shadowy reflections of each other, and they have both fallen from the pure faith. The 'villain' of the piece is the one telling the plainest truth. But he's also lying. He's there to kick Jones while he's down, to let him wallow in the belief that Marian is dead and that it's all Jones's fault, while he knows she is alive and well. The whole scene is in service of the plot of the film, it's moving the pieces about and getting the story ready for the home stretch, but it's done through character and dialogue.

3.The Punch-To-The-Gut Ending.

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

So much of the third or final act of a story is spent resolving the plot. But really, by the final pages, or the final moments of the film, the plot work is essentially done. You've lined everything up and watched it play out. But what about those characters that are dancing around for our approval? I like to make them the final trick of the story, to have their emotions punch us in the gut, then instantly exit the moment.

It's not that the detective has just uncovered a massive conspiracy and witnessed a tragedy, it's that he is powerless to do anything about it, and it's just another day in the system.  The last words of the story are as important as the first, but whereas you may want to fool people with your opening, you want to drop-kick them with the truth at the ending. You want those words to have an impact as they close the book. You want the guy singing about the truth to admit that maybe he told a lie (the Johnny Cash version of Mercy Seat) then boom, exit the song. Or the guy who went on a killing spree, when asked why, will simply say, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world," and the sing ends with you thinking through that blunt and worrying truth (Nebraska).

4. Subtext, Subtext, Subtext. 

If the only thing that's going on in the scene is the thing that the characters claim, then there's a good chances the scene doesn't work. There has to be more at work. There needs to either be something left unsaid on the surface that is running wild between the lines. There has to be the great anger and the lies being exposed in This Land Is Your Land or Born In The USA. The heartbreak lurking beneath the surface in Reno. The real questions being asked by What's He Building? WATCHMEN has to be a completely different book each time you re-read it. A well told Batman story needs to question the morals of it's protagonist and your own support of him. A perfect Daredevil story needs to be slipping in the message that the hero of the hour is a liar and a hypocrite. You have to be halfway through a bouncing Paul Westerberg ditty about missing a dead friend and then release it's sung from the point of view of someone probably having a drug overdose.

And while I'm giving some love to St Paul on the week that THE REPLACEMENTS RETURNED(!!!!!!) Here's a vintage dose of Thunder.

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