Monday, September 16, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #188: Have Something Authentic to Say About Your Setting

A few years ago, I read a “New Yorker” article and thought, “Wow, that’s a great movie idea!”

A former mafia lawyer told the reporter that he had switched to representing inner city crime bosses, but he discovered a problem. His Sicilian clients had always pretended to have a code of honor, but they didn’t really, except for in the movies. On the other hand, when inner city crime bosses imitated the mafia, they actually did follow a movie-like code of honor, which was why they kept getting in more and more trouble. Their lawyer had to reassure them, yes of course you can rat to stay out of prison, just like the real mafia guys do all the time. My mind began spinning plots...

But when it comes time to write that movie, what do I really have? I have an irony. That irony can enrich the theme of the final project, and it could maybe provide a plot twist, and maybe a few scenes, but it doesn’t give me any characters, or a plot, or a structure, or any dialogue…

Most importantly, just because I know this piece of information (me and everyone else who read that issue of “The New Yorker”), doesn’t give me an authentic connection to this world.

I now had something to say about that world, but as a fiction writer, that’s not really your job. You’re not saying something about that world, you’re saying something from within that world.

Here’s another example. At one point I was reading through the plays of Moliere and it suddenly occurred to me that almost every issue he was dealing with in the French royal court is now being paralleled in America’s private schools:
  • “The Misanthrope” is almost expelled from the court for criticizing a rich young man’s poetry and hurting his self-esteem. 
  •  “The Imaginary Invalid” takes too many prescription drugs for everyday anxieties. 
  • “Tartuffe” sells his own mixture of new-sounding moralistic platitudes to a wealthy family that actually just confirms all of their old prejudices. Etc…
So I realized, “Hey, that would make for a great YA novel, or a series of YA novels, called “Moliere High”, or something like that.

In this case, my idea gave me a lot: it gave me plots, characters, scenes, and themes… (It also gave me lots of great dialogue, but that didn’t do me much good because most of Moliere’s dialogue was in rhyme, which I certainly wasn’t willing to emulate!)

But once again, I may have had something to say about the world of modern private schools, based on my own vaguely-understood prejudices against them, but I was incapable of saying anything from within that world unless I was willing to immerse myself in it.

As a fiction writer your setting is not merely one of your topics, it is your material. If you wish to use that material, you have intimately understand and care about the situations, the people, and their authentic dialogue.

If I had wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels, I would have had to get to know a lot of prep school kids, and get to like them. Even if your whole point is to criticize your hero’s world, you still must have genuine affection for that hero (and for his or her antagonists) or you will write obnoxious crap. I wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels to show my disdain for that entire world. That’s a terrilble reason to write.

Remember: whoever you’re writing about, that’s also going to be your audience. Who reads YA novels set in prep school? Teen who are in prep school or wish they were. Teens don’t mind at all if you’re hyper-critical of their world, since they’re hyper-critical themselves, but they’ll be horrified if you write about them with snotty condescension. My adult friends all share my prejudices about private school kids, but none of them would ever read a YA novel set there, so there’s no point in writing to please them. You have to write for the people who would actually purchase your material.

Moliere himself criticized the French court but he didn’t condescend to it. He loved his characters. Yes he wanted to chide them for their foibles and the general hypocricy of their world, but he wanted to do so as a disappointed friend, not an outside judge. He performed his plays for the court, and they loved them. (With notable exceptions, of course. There are always going to be few people who don’t want to hear your friendly criticism!)


j.s. said...

Welcome back, Matt. Hope you got a lot of good work done in your break.

It's easy enough to agree that a writer should never condescend to his characters, his fictional world or his audience, but harder for me to draw the line when you start extrapolating that into specifics about just how much (and what kind of) research a writer ought to be doing, who a work's target audience is and whether any given writer has a right to dive into a given fictional world.

One of the logical extremes of what you're saying makes me want to ask: So only mobsters watch mob films? Only spies read spy novels? And only cops and killers are interested in crime fiction? What about fantasy fiction? Where's the target audience for "Game of Thrones" (people with pet dragons or a little more generously, contemporary heads of state)? Or what about Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"?

In my experience, some of the worst novels about young adults come from those over-hyped wunderkinds -- just out of high school or college -- who write from within those worlds (or just barely from without them), with zero perspective and no distanced (and therefore nuanced or ironic or thematically complex) understanding of them.

I just saw SALINGER, and while the film is badly edited and overlong (read the David Shields book instead if you're really interested), I was struck by how well J.D. Salinger remembered what it was like to be a teenager. He held onto those emotions and wrote about them without condescension, from the inside. But also with a perspective and a wisdom gained from age and from his most harrowing loss of innocence in the war, which put any of Holden Caufield's disillusionment to shame by comparison.

When it comes down to it, aren't you really talking about empathy again? About how the spark of an idea might be intriguing but if we can't find both the personal emotional and universal thematic connection to it inside us, then we ought not to write it?

Even if you have first-hand personal knowledge of their world, all the research on Earth isn't going to buy you love and respect and deep, telling empathy for your characters. And I'd go a bit further and say that if you don't have some natural degree of that capacity right now in your everyday private life, in your life as a reader and a moviegoer, you probably shouldn't be a writer.

Matt Bird said...

It's great to have you back as well, J.S.!

Let's work through some of these examples:

We've talked before about how David Chase took the emotions he knew (putting his abusive mother in a home against her will, and feeling like a monster), and projected it onto a larger canvas. (What if he really was a monster?) So to a certain extent, the mob setting was just a metaphor, but, crucially, even though he wasn't a mobster, he WAS Sicilian. (When James Gandolfini read the pilot script for "The Soproanos" it was so authentic that he pointedly asked Chase (nee DeCesare) "What's up with this 'Chase' business?"

I didn't mean to say that only your subject will read your work, but if your subject doesn't like it, then you're in trouble. Italians (and, indeed, actual mobsters) love "The Sopranos".

Martin, however, is the ultimate example of the opposite: an New Jersey kid of Irish and Italian heritage who wrote a huge epic based on a supernatural retelling of the English War of the Roses. This is just a work of research and imagination, with no personal connection. This is a work that, as you point out, has no home readership, and doesn't reflect the author's background. It proves it can be done.

j.s. said...

That David Chase story is a good one. Though it immediately put me in mind of a counter-example. Harvey Keitel, after reading the script for RESERVOIR DOGS, met with Quentin Tarantino and -- because of the authenticity of the dialogue in particular -- just kind of assumed he'd grown up around criminal tough guys. Tarantino honestly admitted that he hadn't. But Keitel wouldn't believe him. Finally QT said sheepishly: "I just watch a lot of movies." And regardless of what you think of his work or his way of working, it's pretty fair to say that almost nobody making films out there has seen as many other films (or read as many crime novels) or taken them as seriously (especially the characters) and interacted with them as generously as QT does.

That's the thing about storytellers like George R.R. Martin and Quentin Tarantino that sometimes gets short shrift around here: imaginary experience -- if it's deep enough and personal enough and detailed enough -- can count as much as real world experience (cutting edge neuroscience has my back here). Other more famous and acclaimed literary writers have demonstrated as much. The poetry of a shut-in like Emily Dickinson, for example. Or the short stories of Flannery O'Conner, who was fond of saying this about the crucial aspect of writing that can't be taught/learned -- that every truly sensitive and imaginative soul had enough life experience by age 20 to write almost any story authentically.

Anonymous said...

And...HE'S BACK! Huzzah! Let autumn come blustering in if it means that I can take a ring-side seat for more good insights and discussion about films and the people who write them.

J.A. said...

Hi Matt, welcome back.

I think this lesson is one most of us have to learn the hard way, I know it took me multiple false starts to realize that if your goal with a project is to impeach and/or mock, and you dislike the characters and world, you are setting yourself up for a world of trouble.

It's slightly off-topic (although storytelling related), but I had this problem repeatedly when I was first trying to come up with ideas for documentary subjects. I thought I wanted to do something funny and irreverent, but I later realized my real goal was to find characters I could mock. It played out fine in my mind, but when I got in front of someone with a camera, I would either realize:
#1- this person isn't the cartoon I imagined, and to make the film I intend to would be completely dishonest.
#2- if I told the story that I actually saw in front of me, it had little to do with my interests, or why I wanted to make films in the first place.
#3- going in with the deliberate intention of making fun of a subject is so morally questionable that when the actual person was sitting in front of me I couldn't deny that my intention from the beginning was to betray their confidence, and that if I didn't have at least a modicum of love for them, and intend to express that in the film, it was just immoral. Bear in mind I'm talking about portrait films, not topical political overviews, which are another story.

Maybe the greatest example of this working out in an amazingly perfect way was the recent documentary THE ACT OF KILLING. The filmmakers' intention was always to impeach and expose the atrocities committed by his main characters, but it's undeniable that, while the film is amazingly effective in doing that, there are at least a few of the killers that you can tell the filmmaker had great empathy for. And it's part of what makes that film a great work of art. As audience members, we begin to experience that empathy as well, and then feel very uncomfortable with it when the scale of these men's actions becomes clear.

And also related, the principle filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer knew nothing about that piece of history when he stumbled across it. But he dedicated himself to get inside it, taking almost ten years to do so, and learning Indonesian in the process.

Matt Bird said...

Ha! The greatest example of my previous advice: "Speak their language and speak your own too."

I am in awe of "The Queen of Versailles", which maintains a shocking amount of viewer empathy while exposing the hilariously awful banality of evil.

Good to have you back, too, JA!