Weekly Musing: Something Different

This week I thought I’d talked about a movie I recently watched and what caught my attention as a writer. This won’t be a movie review, there are plenty of site for that, rather I’ll be examining the narrative structure, dialogue, and character development of Dunkirk.

First, let’s examine the narrative structure of the movie. While it doesn’t break any ground in structure, I still found it intriguing. Christopher Nolan, who in addition to directing the film also wrote and produced it, utilizes a non-linear approach. He uses flashbacks at appropriate times to develop certain characters but to also show the chain of events which took a dicey situation into a disaster. Nolan makes it easy to keep track of the back and forth which to me is tricky. There are books I’ve read which have done this back and forth is such a sloppy way I couldn’t keep track of where I was in the timeline.

Using a non-linear approach to storytelling is tricky no matter what the medium is. Perhaps it’s easy for a visual medium, perhaps it’s easier for the written word. I truly don’t know. There are some people who simply cannot follow anything straight forward. That’s fine. All our brains are wired differently. The film makes it easy because from the start the audience is given a notation of 1 week or 1 day letting us know what is going on. Nothing more is needed to explain what Nolan is doing.

Next, I’ll examine the dialogue or the rather shockingly lack of dialogue in Dunkirk. Normally, I am someone who loves dialogue and believes it is the best way to show character. But with this movie, I find myself appreciating its sparseness. It simply does not need it except where appropriate. According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie the dialogue for the movie is only 76 pages. A page of dialogue for a script equals 1 minute of spoken dialogue. This gives the impression the movie is only 76 minutes long movie, but it is 1 hour and 45 minutes long.

Nolan’s philosophy toward the movie was to focus solely on the event itself. No need for big speeches from military men or Churchill. No need to show the enemy. In fact, the only interaction the movie deals with the enemy are pieces of paper which floated down upon the French and English soldiers printed by the Germans showing them how they were surrounded on the beach in the opening few minutes. That’s all that is needed; not discussions between characters as to what it means. In a traditional war movie we would get nothing but grandiose speeches by military men and politicians and explanations for just how difficult each decision was.

The lack of dialogue creates an intimate sense each character is operating on instinct. For example, dialogue would have ruined a scene in which two characters pick up the gurney of a wounded soldier left behind on the beach after a German bombing. They realize he is still alive and know their best and only chance to leave is to pick him up and hustle him to the medical boat, the only boat authorized to leave. Through their actions the audience gets what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. To have them talk about it would quite frankly come across as 1) info dumping purely for the audience’s sake, and 2) make them sound stupid. The reality of it is I doubt many of the people sat around discussing themselves or the war. It simply wasn’t what was on their mind. What mattered was surviving long enough to get off that damn beach and go home.

The most dialogue comes between the interaction of a captain of a small civilian boat enlisted by the navy, his son, his son’s friend, and a stray army officer they pick up along the way. This is effective because it focuses the attention on heroes we aren’t used to seeing on screen. The audience later finds out why so many civilian vessels were enlisted to help near 400,000 men get off a beach.

Finally, I’d like to examine Nolan’s approach to characters. I am someone who lacks stories to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Characters are how I make, or don’t make, an emotional connection to the overall story. However, Dunkirk is truly plot-driven. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters the audience doesn’t care about. With a large ensemble cast, a mixture of well-known actors such as such as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, Nolan instead focuses primarily on young, unknown actors and their story.

From the start Dunkirk is intentionally vague with information about the characters, their backgrounds, and honestly, even their names. No matter what medium, the audience gets information early on about why we should or shouldn’t like a character. We usually get bits of relevant backstory so that the audience clearly understands the stakes for each character. In war movies, the characters are taken one step further in that we also get to know the military men and politicians behind the decisions.

In Dunkirk, we do not get this nor is it really needed. Enough is given so we feel how harrowing each of their stories is. Though it is a historical movie, and it’s easy enough to look up how it ends, I teared up and empathized with the characters. From the army officer pleading with a civilian boat captain to not go to Dunkirk to the young men beaten by the Germans to the air force pilots circling the beach to bring down enemy planes, I had an emotional connection to them.

As a writer, watching a movie like Dunkirk shows how effective storytelling can be when it breaks a few rules. Granted, I think the primary reason why it works is because of top notch acting so the sparse dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and lack of character development works. Though I know there are books which employ one or all of these traits, I think it’s more difficult. The movie certainly challenged me to re-examine my thoughts on plot-driven stories. I don’t know if it has inspired to me to try my hand at a non-traditional story structure; I think that is something very few have a talent for. But like reading outside one’s genre, it’s important to examine how other mediums tell a story.

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Weekly Musing: Dogma

I decided to dedicate 2017 as the year I would question the validity of writing advice. Reexamine the rules and regulations drilled into writers via our writer friends and groups and which pop up on blogs and respected writing magazines. When you are new, or even more experienced, the message is to learn as much as possible. To do otherwise is to willingly handicap yourself.

Very little is said about writing for joy or as an expression of characters, stories, and feelings we’ve been carrying in our heads for years. Instead, we’re told to worry about genre and making sure we stick to the expectations while at the same time striving to break the mold. We’re told to start building an online presence before we even have a rough draft completed. Don’t forget to be active on social media and review every book we’ve ever read on Goodreads and Amazon. We’re told to start following agents and publishers on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget to follow every blog known to man. Again, all before that rough draft is even done. It all comes across as people pleasing and discourages rocking the boat if you want to get published.

At some point, at least for me, it became too much; nothing but noise, a massive distraction, incredibly repetitive, and maybe even pointless. But who am I to question? I know nothing. Surely, I must be wrong because one does not disagree with such tried and true platitudes. Or can you?

Though this post from Anne R. Allen focuses on questioning the dogma which surrounds book marketing, I think the overall point is important. As writers, we should be skeptical of the dogmatic thinking within writing and publishing. It’s okay to wonder if the advice dispensed in Stephen King’s On Writing, a book considered by many to be an almost Bible of sorts for writers, still holds water. It’s okay to question what a blogger swear is the Absolute Truth and the Only Way To Do This is, indeed, the case. Pay close attention and it will quickly become apparent of the contradictory advice and rules. How confusing.

There are a few rebels willing to state don’t believe everything you read or told. What works for one author isn’t what will work for everyone despite confident assertions. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve come away with it. Go ahead and be skeptical. Realize one size does not fit all. Every institution and industry needs people willing to doubt the validity of standard practices and dogmatic thinking. As Allen points out in her blog post, much of the marketing advice is outdated. I’d argue much of the writing advice out there is outdated or will become outdated. Even some grammar rules are debated and changed.

I’m not saying everything out there is rubbish. It’s great to get ideas on how to improve productivity or tools to organize your thoughts or to learn more about structure or strengthen your grammar. At the same time, don’t be afraid to wonder if you need an 8-page long character sheet. Don’t be afraid to dismiss a book’s advice to fully diagram your story before writing a rough draft. Don’t be afraid to be anti-Oxford comma. You’re not a failure or any less of a writer. Also, don’t be trouble by NOT reading everything upon the subject of writing or publishing. At the end of the day what’s most important is writing your story; not if you have thousands of followers on Twitter. The writing itself should speak for itself and is what will attract readers.

Weekly Musing: That One Book

A while ago I stumbled upon a suggestion for a blog post of talking about the one book which inspired me to write. The main point is to talk about whatever book it was in a positive light. For me, though, I have a different interpretation. For years there never was any one book or author which made me think I could write. I’d always assumed writers were highly intelligent and operated on a higher level. And even though I’d been messing around on and off throughout my life with ideas and starting stories, it wasn’t until I read Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight that I truly gathered the courage and inspiration to commit more fully to writing.

Now stay with me on this one. The main reason why Meyers’s book inspired and gave me confidence to write was because it’s so poorly written, in my opinion. It’s incredibly dull and boring. I can’t relate to any of the characters and couldn’t put myself in their shoes. Probably because I’m nearing 40 and YA really has never done it for me. Throw in lame ass vampires instead of cool, scary ones and you lose me altogether.

After I calmed down from wasting my time on the book, a voice in my head told me “I can writer better than that.” This voice prodded me to take writing more seriously and give it my full effort. Also, if something like this could get published and (unfortunately) become insanely popular, what’s to stop me from trying? Writing has always been one of my strengths and something I love even though my experience has primarily been academic. Naturally, this was before learning the publishing industry is a crap shoot.

Ruminating upon what about Twilight book made me believe in myself, I realized not only was the lackluster characters or banal plot, it’s also the writing style. I thought to myself if I had written, it’d be so much different. This then projected me to brainstorm what types of characters and books I’d like to see. Taking this one step further, I concluded if I wanted to see the kinds of stories and characters I long for, I come up with, then, hmm, the only person who can do that is me.

So, that’s what I started doing. It’s still a giant work in process putting onto paper the ideas. At times, it’s incredibly discouraging reading and hearing how going too far off the beaten path within a genre or flipping a trope on its head has a hard time getting picked up a traditional publisher. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the publisher claims it wants stories like that. Knowing this add another level of overanalyzing to any story I’m working on. Though I’m supposed to not allow this train of thought, I constantly ask myself if whatever I’m working on is sellable.

But when I read a book that defies genre expectations, it gives me hope and inspiration. Oddly enough, that is something even drivel like Twilight possesses. It certainly created a world wherein vampires can survive during the day even if they sparkle like a bedazzled rodeo queen’s jacket. So, if sparkly vampires can sell, perhaps I should take a cue from it and use it as inspiration to be different.