The Humor of Walter Mitty

Two notes. One: Spoilers for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will follow, and this is one movie that you don’t want spoiled. Two: When you watch the film, know that I’ve only seen it on VidAngel (similar to ClearPlay), and from what I’ve heard, I don’t recommend watching this one without filters. Go watch it on VidAngel, and then come back so we can chat!

I admit it- our family did not watch this movie until a few months ago. Honestly, I had zero interest in watching a remake of anything without Danny Kaye- even though I hadn’t even seen the original. Thanks to the debaucherous nature of too many modern films, I had no interest in a movie about a “Secret” anything. That is, until I found out that it was a rejuvenated family movie about a guy whose overactive imagination takes him on an unforgettable journey. Well. That sounded like a writer-friendly concept, so I watched the movie.

And it was indeed spectacular, yet not in the way you would expect. While I found the plot, development, and cinematography to be exemplary, none of these basic components of storytelling truly stood out. What stood out to me was the masterful use of humor.

That particular week, I had been informally studying the rules of good comic relief. I forget the names of the various sources I read, but from them I gleaned one crucial principle:

Humor, like any other component of a story, should tie into the larger picture.

It’s the same general idea as with romance or any other subplot. Putting something into a story just because the audience might like it is simply glorified mob rule, not storytelling. Subplots have to be relevant- sometimes even indispensable- to the main plot, and funny subplots are no exception.

Back to Walter Mitty. The story’s primary source of humor is a secondary character named Todd Maher, a support techie from eHarmony who faithfully works to fix up Walter’s page and find him a date. During Walter’s outrageous journeys throughout the world, Todd continually calls Walter with commonplace updates and questions about his webpage. Walter might just have come through the craziest of ordeals: sailing on a ship on icy seas with only a few grumpy Norsemen for companions, or maybe riding with a drunken pilot on a helicopter in a storm, to name a few. It doesn’t matter to the faithful Todd. Nor to the audience; we can’t help laughing with some relief when the phone rings and Walter hears “Hello! It’s Todd, from eHarmony!”

But irony and catharsis aren’t the only roles Todd fills. This seemingly meaningless humor device comes into play in the main plot near the end of the movie. (Mild spoilers.) After so much time out of the States in an ungoverned country, Walter cannot legally enter Los Angeles unless somebody who knows him personally can tell the police that he is the real Walter Mitty. But- guess who had mentioned that he lives in LA? Right. Todd from eHarmony. Even as the audience laughs at this ironic work of fate, we are saying to ourselves, “Ah. So that’s why Todd and eHarmony are in this story.”

It’s a seemingly simple thing, but the more you think about it, the more you realize just how artfully the writers wove this plot. Yes, they made people laugh, but they also added a little playfulness to lighten the intense scenes. They fixed a logical problem without resorting to deus ex machina. And besides all this, they wove one more lesson into the theme: everyone has a purpose and a part to play, and everyone you meet has the potential to be a valuable friend. Even Todd from eHarmony.

Yep. That’s how we do humor, folks.

Have you seen this brilliant film? What tips have you learned for successfully working humor into a story?

Advertisements

The Bad Dinosaur, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1? If so, go read that first and then come back here for the finale of my first official movie rant. 

Alas, my hopes for the rest of the film were instead dashed on the superbly-animated rocks, for the remainder of the film had a lot of story problems, all of which violated Pixar’s 22 Rules. Perhaps the film was existentialist in nature (so to speak), but the writers certainly used a lot of coincidences and cliches. For example, when Arlo gets himself stuck under some boulders, Spot returns to dig Arlo out- despite the fact that he had no reason to help the dinosaur and every reason to stay away. Why would he come back? Because the writer wrote himself into a quandary he couldn’t solve, so he had to employ deus ex machina (definition: cheating).

Again, at the beginning of the movie, the pterodactyls killed and ate a little critter on-site, but when they capture Spot with the same intent, they hesitate to kill him just long enough for Arlo to come rescue him. This is what Blimey Cow calls “the chatty bad guy cliche.” The villain has no reason to delay except that the hero (and by that I mean the writer) is too lazy to find any other way to fix the problem, thus the villain has to play the fool and give the hero a chance to thwart his plans.

Yet again, at the climax- which is supposed to be the very worst point of the story- Spot and Arlo happen to survive the plunge over a hundred-foot waterfall. There’s twenty feet of fresh powder down there; it’ll be like landing on a pillow! Hopefully. Let’s leave aside the fact that if people went over a waterfall like that without a barrel or other such protective device, they would die.

None of these plot devices has any place in any story- except, it seems, in a story designed to represent the true hardships of real life. Right? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t make sense. None of these coincidences stands up to the test of reality; why on earth would they even pass as acceptable in a film by the number one family filmmaker?

Then there were so many smaller cliches within scenes, two of which stand out as painfully obvious. How about this refreshingly original dialogue at a pivotal scene? Arlo: Where are we going? Poppa: You’ll see. Or, when asked if he wants to sell Spot to some farming Tyrannosaurs, Arlo gives the completely unexpected response: “Actually, the droid’s not for sale.” Just think, he could have gotten forty portions for selling the kid. 

The final problem I had with this movie runs much deeper than amateur storytelling or cliches; I am concerned about the ethical views presented in the movie. In one needless scene, Arlo and Spot discover some decayed berries on the ground, and, after trying them, experience bizarre hallucinations that make them laugh hysterically. Nothing more is said about such opiates, leaving kids with the assumption that hallucinogens are funny and harmless. Elsewhere, the farming Tyrannosaurs use a swear word- the one starting with S. Hmm… Notice something here- it’s not the villainous pterodactyls or hyena-like creatures who use vulgar language; it’s the heroes, the ones who previously saved Arlo and Spot from death.

You may say I’m ridiculous; who cares about one half-finished cuss word and a silly scene lasting thirty seconds? Well, I turn around and ask you: who in 1939 cared about one expletive at the end of Gone With the Wind? But 74 years later, we are surprised at the 935 f-bombs in The Wolf of Wall Street. Who knows? In 70 years, you might be wincing at a graphic you-know-what scene in Toy Story Rebooted. Norms change, and it is “harmless” films like The Good Dinosaur who set those changes in motion.

And even if you don’t care about expletives and hallucinogens, you ought to care about how Disney and Pixar have just dropped the bar for all other filmmakers. Not only are we going to see an increase in the junky content, we’ll see a decrease in solid, plausible, edifying storytelling. Why? Because Disney is the trendsetter. They just set a bad storytelling trend for the kids, and today’s kids are tomorrow’s storytellers and audiences.

I will say this much for Pixar’s latest feature film: The climax was mostly well-developed, as it forced Arlo to make the difficult choice to face his fear and rescue his friend Spot, rather than fleeing to save himself. And of course the CGI was indescribably beautiful; if you had removed the cartoonish characters from any screenshot of the movie, I would have believed it was a photograph of a romantic South American landscape.

But decent climactic scenes and top-of-the-line graphics do little to remedy the other problems of any movie, and Disney/Pixar’s newest release does indeed have problems. If you need a Disney or Pixar fix, go rewatch an old classic like Toy Story or Cinderella. Kids need good movies, too, so don’t waste your time on the bad ones. Indeed, The Good Dinosaur is nothing short of Bad. 

What’s your verdict? Did The Good Dinosaur live up to its title?

Slow-Mo Is Dangerous

A few months ago, I sat down with the clan to watch a new family movie. Very clean, decently executed, and for the most part well-acted- but I didn’t enjoy it. It felt slow and stuffy for some reason, almost as if I was watching a series of gifs, and I wondered why. I only realized the reason when, in our traditional discussion that finishes off any family movie night, my brother commented, “The entire thing was in slow-mo!”

I (internally) snapped my fingers. That’s it! The whole movie was chock-full of slow motion scenes; probably 1/5 at least of all the scenes had some amount of slow motion. We all chuckled, but everyone agreed. The cinematography had pulled the audience out of a perfectly good story and thus killed the entire project.

thY1UY0I8M

The point I want to make is this: don’t kill your story with slow-mo. How is that possible? Writers don’t tell stories using hi-def cameras, so how can we do slow motion scenes at all?

I’ll show you how with an excerpt from one of my new favorite books, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (page 368, if you care to read the rest of the story):

They rode toward the corner, where the day’s importance reached them. Liesel knew. It was that feeling again, of being watched. A voice pedaled inside her. Two laps.

Look at the window. Look at the window.

She was compelled.

Like an itch that demands a fingernail, she felt an intense desire to stop.

Those paragraphs breaks are not my own additions. They are Zusak’s. He means to convey tension, and he does it splendidly. Read it again- you can feel the strain in the bleak air, the terror of the moment. Visualizing this in your head, you can’t avoid imagining this scene in slow motion. And that’s what I mean.

Isn’t this wonderful, you say? We have the ability to tell stories the way directors do, with colorful mental images. Our jobs just got ten times better.

Seriously. It gets stranger the longer you watch it.

And ten times harder. You see, going back to the movie I mentioned at the beginning, it’s quite possible that we can overdo the dramatic side. Don’t get me wrong; a little drama, while nothing short of annoying in real life, can enliven a story and deliver just enough impact to make the reader care. On the other hand, too much drama will make your story feel like that movie: a collection of slow and stuffy gifs. It’s like the overuse of participle phrases. It’s not a bad thing to use, but too much is simply too much.

What is the simplest way to avoid this problem? I would suggest that we follow a simple two-step plan:

  1. Read what we have written.
  2. Have someone else read what we have written.

Simple as it may seem, we writers tend to be blind to the weaknesses of our own writing. Re-reading and visualizing the scene and then getting someone else to do the same can be a tremendous help. After all, we wrote the story so that readers would enjoy it to the fullest; why not get a test-reader to see if your approach worked? Get a second opinion, and then get down to editing.

Have you ever used slow motion? How did it work for you?

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

03_PR

Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part 1)

Let’s be honest, fellow fantasy writers. Plenty of authors have turned the word “exposition” almost into a curse word, and we’re the worst offenders.

Think about it. Epic plots, magic battles, worlds full of creatures unseen except in our imaginations… they make for a very long, very full, very expository sort of book. Telling rather than showing seems to be the way to go, even though we know that’s against the rule. Writers don’t like it, readers don’t like it. The mention of the “e” word makes all of us shudder, yet when readers pick up a new fantasy book, they almost expect us to throw a heap of backstory at them. And I too am guilty of writing unimaginative exposition.

Everything you ever needed to know.

But do we really want to settle for such low expectations? It’s time for us to break the chain and make our backstories interesting- and maybe exposition can help us do that if we do it right.

This week, I’m exploring the three biggest offenders in fantasy: prologues, infodumps, and villain monologues. Next week, I’ll share the ways that I avoid these three rascally problems. Ready? Here we go.

Starting with Act I, our first offender is the almost entirely dispensable prologue, and you could find it in almost any fantasy from The Lord of the Rings to Eragon. Now, in the rare event that your prologue actually is the perfect introduction to your book, most editors will tell you to make that your first chapter. However, the problem with most prologues is that they usually have very little to do with the rest of their respective books, except to summarize all the information we will need later (and then some).

While it might seem like the most efficient way to summarize a fascinating plot to a new reader, it is also the most yawn-worthy. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, many readers actually expect a boring prologue in a fantasy book; therefore, they will automatically skip the paragraphs under the heading “Prologue” and so miss any vital information that I might put in here. No way around it; people just don’t read prologues. Honestly, when was the last time you read the prologue?

The world is changed…

Secondly, the characters who get all the explaining done to them are quite likely to have heard it all before. Why would their mentor friend explain it over again? And for that matter, characters in a prologue are usually not so significant to the story that they deserve the first place in a book. Why not start with the main character in his or her daily life? The mentor and company can explain everything when they meet.

Our second troublemaker comes in the form of a big infodump, typically toward the beginning of Act I. This is in essence exactly the same as a prologue, only rewritten and placed in a new chapter. We overcome the temptation to write a prologue only to drop an encyclopaedia in another chapter. So there is of course a right way and a wrong way to do it; some books do explain huge chunks of history in such a way that keeps readers interested. But most new writers do it the wrong way by having the hero’s Mentor plunk down and explain the history of whatever fantasy world we have in our heads.

An infodump is simply too much, too fast. By definition, it dumps information on us all at once, devoid of elbow room or breathing space. Often this information isn’t even relevant to the plot. In an old draft of a story I never published, the hero is chosen for a quest (sound familiar? He even had a magical sword to go with it). But before he can go on that quest, he has to have the entire history of the world explained to him in a nice chunk of exposition. In one sitting. People just can’t read paragraphs like that. It’s not interesting to them, and they won’t need all this prior knowledge to enjoy the rest of the story.

If we can move past the prologue and infodumps, we might still end up throwing exposition at readers even in the third act of the story. I speak, of course, of the villain’s monologue. We have all seen this one before, especially in movies for kids. All the little kids watching Frozen (spoilers…?) just won’t understand why Hans wants to take over Arendelle- despite the fact that he already told Anna about his twelve elder brothers. When we encounter this illusion of a problem, we usually end up writing a scene in which the antagonist faces the protagonist in a moment of triumph and explains all the ins and outs of his or her complex plan- under the guise of “gloating”.

Frozen (2013)

Here’s the thing: some really despicable villains might be inclined to gloat, but most antagonists aren’t that foolish.  If you had your mortal enemy in your power and were just about to execute the final crushing move, would you reveal every part of your plan to them? Of course not. Hans, for example, has no reason to tell Anna that he deceived her- she knows that by now- or to explain that he’s going to kill Elsa.

And that, fellow writers, covers our three biggest enemies in exposition. Tune in next week for part two, and I’ll share a list of some techniques that might help work in the backstory.