5 Storytelling Lessons You Can Learn From the Films of 2013

This column was born out of a desire to inject a little film criticism into my work here at LitReactor. Spice things up a bit. After all, screenwriters and film directors are storytellers too, and we can learn just as much about narrative from watching movies as we can by reading books. So I pitched an article on the best screenwriting of 2013.

Of course, that was before I wrote about my favorite films of the year for Twitch. My LitReactor article would have been essentially the same list. Which made me realize, when critics talk about screenplays, they generally aren't talking about the physical, typed document. The actual "writing." Do you think members of the Academy read all those scripts before casting their Oscar ballots? No, they're going off the finished product. And to me, there is a definite difference between a film on the page and a film on the screen. So since I didn't want to misrepresent like that—and wasn't about to go on a massive script reading bender—I had to improvise. Thus: Five simple lessons I learned about storytelling from watching films in 2013.


Size Matters

And not in the way you think. Bigger isn't necessarily better. As David Lynch once said about Inland Empire, a film needs to be the length "that feels right." Of course, what "feels right" is completely subjective, and Lynch was dead wrong about his self-indulgent, 180 minute thriller.

There was a lot of bloat at the box office this year. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street were two of the main offenders, and together they led the assault on asses. Both films are adaptations of books, and you might think, therein lies the problem, but no. The problem with The Hobbit isn't the length of the source material (the book is only 310 pages long). The problem is Jackson and his co-writers added so much extra, the adaptation ballooned to the size of three films. And as exciting as the Hobbit films are, there have been complaints across the board about their narrative excess.

Speaking of excess, the makers of Wolf of Wall Street have taken a page from the playbook of their film's subject, corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort. The three hour film goes to excess in portraying his excess, and suffers for it. The myriad scenes of debauchery are not only repetitive, they are overlong. And it could have been worse. In a recent behind the scenes featurette, editor Thelma Schoonmaker discussed how the film originally clocked in at four hours. Not only that, but "trimming an hour wasn’t a matter of losing whole scenes, but trimming things across the board." Seems to me, they didn't trim enough. The existing film could easily have lost another 30 minutes of flab. You've heard the expression Kill your darlings? Well, as great as Wolf of Wall Street is, it's got way too many darlings. As a storyteller, you can't be self-indulgent and let your scenes run on. You need to get in, make your point, and get out.

Characters Can Be Unlikable, But They Have To Be Interesting

Some viewers/readers have problems relating to unlikable characters, but for me, it's more important they be interesting. You could be telling the story of the biggest scumbag on earth, but if he/she is engaging, I'm right there with you. There were a number of films this year that featured this type of character, protagonists that ran the gamut from "selfish dick" to "full-on sociopath." Not all of them were good, but a handful of them were great.

A perfect example is Inside Llewyn Davis, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. If anyone knows how to write a great unlikable character, it's the Coen brothers. Llewyn Davis, played to perfection by Oscar Isaac, is a self-centered jerk, but he's a fascinating one, and not without his charm. Not only that, he isn't even the biggest jerk in the film, which makes him almost likable by default. It also doesn't hurt that the Coens send him on one of their patented odysseys full of bizarre characters and situations.

Slightly higher on the jerk scale is Cate Blanchet's Jasmine in Blue Jasmine. God, she's insufferable, but you can't take your eyes off her. Part of this is due to the performance, but part of it is Woody Allen's ability to evoke the audience's sympathy. We shouldn't care what happens to her, but we do. Even though she deserves what she gets, we can't help but feeling a little bit sorry for her.

But what if a character's actions are so abhorrent, their unlikability is off the charts? Take Lester Ballard in James Franco's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God. How unlikable is he? He's an unrepentant necrophiliac and serial killer. And he's not even charming like Patrick Batemen. He wallows in filth and barely speaks in coherent sentences. But he's such an anomaly, you are compelled to keep watching. Again, this is aided by an amazing performance, by relative newcomer Scott Haze, but even in McCarthy's novel, there is a sympathy to be had for Ballard.

But not every film can pull this off. Two of the years biggest offenders were Sofia Coppola's lifeless The Bling Ring, and Paul Schrader's The Canyons, written by none other than Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis knows a thing or thirteen about horrible people we love to read about, but just plain phones it in with this script. Maybe something was lost in the translation, but every character in this film is turgid and uncompelling. The same goes for The Bling Ring. Coppola's superficial characters are rendered uninteresting because they lack any sort of dimension. I wanted to stab them in the face, and then gouge out my own eyes. It just goes to show, sometimes talented people get it wrong.

And Wolf of Wall Street is another conversation altogether, one that has to do with the perceived glorification of unlikable people by the filmmakers. One thing you never want to do is condone the horrible actions of your horrible characters.

If You're Doing Something That's Been Done Before, Do It Well

If you're working in a well-trod genre, and you're going to do something that's been done a million times, you'd better do it well. Otherwise, don't even bother. One of this year's best-reviewed horror films was James Wan's The Conjuring. It's your typical haunted house/demonic possession story—by no means an original idea. But the characters are well-drawn, the narrative is solid, and it is fraught with tension. What more do you want from a horror flick? Same thing goes for We Are What We Are. Granted, the "hillbilly cannibal" genre isn't quite as popular, but trust me—it's been done. What makes WAWWA stand out (WAWWA!) is that it takes the premise seriously and tells a solid, character driven story. You don't necessarily need to re-invent the wheel (although that's nice, too). Just show a modicum of competence. A little goes a long way, especially in genres that are looked upon as inferior.

Another genre that's treated like a bastard step-child is the romantic comedy. But then along comes a film like Spike Jonze's Her and breathes new life into it. Sure, it has an original narrative hook—that of a man falling in love with an operating system—but at its heart, it's the same boy-meets-girl romance audiences have been eating up for years. And it's a well-written one, to boot, with shimmery dialogue that isn't emotionally manipulating. It's also legitimately funny. Take away the tech angle and it would still be better than your average rom-com. And average is bad. Don't be average. Whatever story you choose to tell, tell it well.

How You Tell A Story Is Just As Important As The Story Itself

On paper, a movie like Spring Breakers couldn't sound less interesting. A trio of broke college girls turns to robbery so they can afford to go on Spring Break. BO-RING. But tell that story as a hyper-realistic fantasy, full of dream-like scenes that overlap one another, and you've got something special. Despite the lurid subject matter, director Harmony Korine exhibits a maturity in his approach, handling the material with complete assurance. A similar style also worked wonders in Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, and served to turn a simple story into a complex emotional journey. In both films, the filmmaking influences the tone of the narrative and reflects the characters' state of mind.

Of course, this approach isn't always successful. Although he's created masterpieces with similar methods, turning minimal story into impressionistic art didn't work so well for Terence Malick's latest, To The Wonder. No matter how you dress up a story, if it doesn't connect with the audience you are dead in the water. There has to be a balance. But if you'd rather blame Wonder's failure on Ben Affleck, be my guest.

Not everything has to be artsy-fartsy, however. Take a film like Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. It's a pretty straight-forward story of survival, which almost qualifies it for "If You're Doing Something That's Been Done Before, Do It Well." But this film is bigger than just its premise. There is a level of technical sophistication that elevates this film to the status of an event. The visual aesthetic is almost its own language, and that language does the bulk of the storytelling. I know film is a more visual medium, but that doesn't mean you can't learn an abstract lesson from this example. If you could figure out the literary equivalent to the spectacle of Gravity, you'd have an instant classic on your hands.

Don't Underestimate Your Audience

If you water down your vision in an attempt to broaden your appeal, you may just wind up alienating the audience that matters. Take The Grandmaster. The film tells the story of martial arts expert Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee, amongst many others. Multiple popular action movies based on his life have already been made, so how hard could it be to sell audiences on another one? Especially one directed by an auteur like Wong Kar-wai? Oh, I forgot. He's one of them arty directors. We'd better re-edit the film to make it easier to understand for those dumb 'Mericans. ("We" being Harvey Weinstein. Shocker.) Make the structure more linear, spoon-feed them the historical context. Well, guess what? The people who are going to appreciate a Wong Kar-wai film are not going to appreciate a "Dummies" version, and no matter how much you water it down, neither are the people who want straight-up action. It's a lose-lose.

The Grandmaster isn't the only film Weinstein is dumbing down. Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is a study in class structure that takes place in a post ice age society on a train. (I'm cheating a bit here because the film has yet to be released in the US.) The lower class citizens, who live at the back of the train, stage a revolt, fighting one car at a time towards the engine. Sounds awesome, right? Nope. We are too stoopid. Despite English dialogue, an international cast, and glowing reviews, Harvey Scissorhands wants to cut important character detail to make the film more accessible to middle-America. Important character detail. It boggles the mind. I can't believe this even needs to be said, but don't treat your audience like idiots. In fact, that might be the most important lesson of all.


What about you, LitReactors? I know many of you are movie buffs. What were some of your favorite films this year? Least favorite? And what lessons about storytelling did they impart?

Here's to another year of great films and great storytelling.

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Comments

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading Mysteries - Knut Hamsun January 3, 2014 - 7:28pm

As far as unlikable characters, the best thing I've ever heard is "To understand is to forgive."

If something is written right, you could end up rooting for Hitler.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Treasure Island January 3, 2014 - 7:42pm

I really liked Stoker. I suppose it fits the 'If you're doing something that's been done before...' heading. I'll resist details as it would mean spoilers. Storytelling skill it reminded me of is that it's one thing to write a story that your reader will read once, but a whole different ballgame to write one they will want to go back to several times - in Stoker's case I found myself wanting to see new interpretations of characters and find clues I'd missed the first time around. I often try to write scenes that might have a different interpretation on a second read, without really knowing if I succeeed, but sometimes when I read through a draft and rediscover my own story I try to draw these sorts of scenes out more.

Erich Aschenbrenner's picture
Erich Aschenbrenner January 3, 2014 - 8:29pm

My favorite movies this year all came at the end, and include TWO smaller (in terms of advertising) Mathew Mcconaughey pieces, 'Mud' and 'Dallas Buyers Club' I was also a fan of 'American Hustle'. What did these movies do right that other's didn't. Well to me, both Mathew Mcconaughey pieces were original. Dallas Buyer's Club delt with subject matter that either has not been delved into widely in graphic detail (HIV and AID's particularly with regard to the gay community). We've all seen movies ('Trainspotting' for instance) where a character contracts HIV and quickly deteriorates, but I have yet to see such a mainstream movie depict it so graphically and accurately. As someone who falls into one of the two major risk categories (I'll let you figure out which) this movie really hit home. I guess in ways it does fit into the category of "If you're doing something that's been done before, do it well" in the sense that the story arch is quite predictable if you know anything at all about the content: Character faces his own mortality, and confronts his own close-minded beliefs by being confronted with a conflicting character. Yet, (to me at least) it is extremely compelling. It deals with the mortality theme quite well, reflecting both the desire to go out with a bang, and the desperation to survive, towards the end it even delves a bit into the survival vs. purpose vs. enjoyment theme, which I found very interesting. The raw detail drove this film, it doesn't hesitate to pull out graphic images, but doesn't get too self-indulgent or exagerate anything.

 

'Mud' also followed a predictable story line (you could see the 'twists' from a mile away) and yet managed to be compelling. The performance that absolutely stunned me was not Mcconaugheys (not that his wasn't good, it was) but of the two young protagonists. THey are not your traditional young adults dressed up like teenagers or pre-teens, which to me screams 'bad porn movie' but rather  two young, stunningly talented actors who are sure to rise to fame or at least destined to be in more great indie films. THey were convincing as young boys, and the sense of wonder and aventure that they brought to the movie brought the audience to the proper perspective grandly. THis perspective is what makes the film so unique and successful. Rather than being side characters in a film about Mathew Mcconaugheys character (which is what I expected), they are truly the stars in all senses of the word

 

Finally, "American Hustle' delt with both "If you're doing something that's been done before, do it well" and "Characters can be unlikeable, but they have to be interesting" how many times have we seen a crime movie go awry by being to wrote. This is not that. Though the climax and downward action is predictable (where we end up is exactly where we expect to) the journey is not. So many twists and turns could not have been done better. The claim 'Some of this actually happened' is a great beginning. How many movies claim to be based on true events and failmiserably at depicting them. This movie makes no such claim, and though I have yet to research the actual events, I'm guessing that they are a more accurate portrayal than many such movies.

Even more interesting, how to make a snitch not only interesting and compelling as a protagonist, but genuinely likeable. Having been envolved with some shady characters myself, I loathe 'snitches'. I loathe them! Yet, with all his flaws, I couldn't help but like and get drawn into CHristian Bale's character in American Hustle. From starting as a sleazy and insecure conman, he grows as a character into someone, if not admirable, at least someone we can be aympathetic too. The film (I felt) took a genuine look at his psychology and thoughts from childhood to the end of the story arch, and got real with his insecurities, flaws, and shortcomings. This made him real, and enabled to audience to grasp his perspective better than most movies with comparable content. Finally, god damnit it was funny. THe beginning tried a little to hard, but by the end I laughed harder than I do at most comedies, and this movie delt with serious themes of corruption, abnormal psychology, unhealthy relationships, and criminal drama.

The real masterpiece of American Hustle was the trailers. Though they were extremely interesting and compelling, I went into the movie having absolutly no idea what it was really about. THat made it interesting. It was truly a cinematic adventure as I hadn't seen three-quarters of the plot in the trailer. I think this seemingly small detail made the movie for me, and got into my top three list. 

 

Thanks for reading,

Erich

Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway January 3, 2014 - 8:35pm

Jerry Stahl said that after reading one of his drafts for Permanent Midnight, the only advice Hubert Selby gave him was "'When you write about the people you hate, do it with love.' and coming from anybody else, that would have been such a banal platitude, but coming from him, I had to listen." Or something like that.

Jonathan Barber's picture
Jonathan Barber January 3, 2014 - 9:10pm

I'm sure you understand the world of literature, but, sir, you know jack shit about film.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks January 4, 2014 - 3:00am

@jonathan barber: Ha! Care to expand on that?

mechacactus's picture
mechacactus January 4, 2014 - 6:10am

You lost me at Lynch. Saying Lynch was "dead wrong" about the length of Inland Empire is like saying Dali's clocks are objectively a hair too floppy.  

The Hobbit was an easy target for making this fluffy point about pieces being overwrought. But you bit off a bit too much with Lynch, and the credibility of the article suffers for it. 

 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks January 4, 2014 - 10:18pm

@mechacactus: I lost you at Lynch, yet you still made it all the way down here to the comments to voice your displeasure. :)

I'm actually a huge Lynch fan. Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway are two of my favorite films of all time. As for saying Lynch was "dead wrong," I did preface that by saying what feels right is completely subjective, which, one would assume, applies to my own opinions as well.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Big Book of Pulps January 6, 2014 - 1:37pm

A character must want something very badly. Books about how to write have been bleating that one for ages. Check out Bruce Dern in "Nebraska" if you want to see that one brought to life. 

"Rising Action" is another one writing teachers hit on and it's always seemed an elusive concept to me but "American Hustle" embodies it. The Christian Bale character -- yeah he's a con artist, but he's a very reluctant FBI operative. The way he gets pulled against his will into a deranged shadow world, you could call that rising action. 

A purely cinematic reason to see "American Hustle" is Amy Adams.

"Spring Breakers" embodied characters wanting something badly, pretty well, but the rising action part was miserable. Yeah, four college girls want really really really bad to get to FL for spring break and they'll do anything to get the money. That part I dug. But when James Franco's character, Alien, steps in as the "bad boy" and supposedly leads them into his dangerous world, it loses all legitimacy for me.

David Lynch is a  master of conflict. In "Inland Empire" all Laura Dern has to do is answer her door bell and bam, she's got a very strange neighbor inviting herself in for tea and it makes for a most anxious and surreal scene. I disagree about the movie being too long. Andy Warhol's movies you could accuse of being too long, not this one by Lynch.