Wow! Sorry for my long absence from blogging. I guess I'm either on or off.
My son was home sick today and so I decided to rent a classic - 2001: A Space Odyssey. We've talked about this movie in the past, and I thought it might be fun to watch. I was right, but certainly not in the way I expected.
I've gotten in the habit of studying the structure of movies as I watch them. It's so much easier to dissect a movie than it is a book, particularly movies I've seen before. My apologies in advance if 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of your sacred cows - you may want to stop reading now - but IMO, boy was this a good one to tear apart as an example of what NOT to do in storytelling.
The film opens with almost 5 minutes of blank screen with strange music in the background. No title screen. No opening pictures. Just blackness. Okay, it's a space movie. But 5 minutes?
Next, the film shows 20 minutes, TWENTY MINUTES (no exaggeration), of footage of men dressed up in gorilla suits and going about their typical day, until one day when a monolith appears in their neighborhood and suddenly one of them gets the great idea to use an animal bone as a weapon and promptly kills an enemy gorilla. This is progress.
Cut to the future. For another 20 minutes (NO LIE!) we see footage of special effect models - various space vehicles moving and rotating about in space, culminating with an extended scene of a pen floating about in space inside a space shuttle/airplane, while its owner SLEEPS! Riveting. Really. Even allowing for the fact that in the late 1960's, the idea of space travel was new and perhaps needed a bit more set-up than current times (for those who weren't Star Trek fans), twenty minutes was a bit much.
At this point, my 13-year-old son is about to crawl out of his skin, and I'm about ready to end my repeated assurances of "just wait, it gets better". Forty-five minutes into the film, we get our first dialogue. After a brief teleconference with his 5-year-old daughter (presumably to humanize our temporary hero - as nothing else relevant seems to come out of the discussion), our MC of the moment, Dr. Heyward Floyd, speaks to an assembly of scientists on the moon explaining in his monologue that an object estimated to be 4 million years old has been found buried on the moon. All go to investigate and are presumably killed, including the man who until now has been the main character. So much for humanizing him with the daughter. We never really had a chance to care about him as a character.
More long, drawn-out images and we eventually meet our dual heroes, and the infamous HAL. They are on a mission they know almost nothing about. Neither of them seem to have known Dr. Floyd and feel no sense of mission to solve the question of why he had to die. In fact, with the exception of the monolith tie-in, it could be an entirely different movie. Almost all the dialogue is contrived to tell the audience information that needs to be conveyed, rather than showing it in an interesting way. The dialogue is stilted - a third grader could probably be more creative. At this point, my daughter has returned from school and the two kids are rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all. I'm wondering how the film ever became a classic, but keep saying - "Just wait... it'll all make sense in the end."
At no point is Dave (the remaining hero) ever angry at HAL for killing off the crew, nor is he nervous about his ability to succeed in disabling HAL, nor does he run into any real stumbling blocks - HAL is ineffectual at doing ANYTHING to even slow Dave down, and his pleading attempts (in monotone voice) of "Stop Dave. Stop Dave. Stop Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. The world is getting dark Dave. My mind is fading Dave." had the kids laughing so hard it was hard to hear the next line of dialogue.
Next comes an extended psychedelic tunnel (perhaps another 10 minutes? I don't know the exact time. It did seem to go on and on. We were laughing too hard at this point for me to keep track). The special features included with the DVD stated they spent a lot of time with glue and solvents building the models. This explains a lot!
At this point I tell the kids, "the scene explaining it all is coming up soon now. You'll recognize it by the famous Space Odyssey music?" So we sit through weird, inexplicable scenes of Dave growing older and older in some sort of drug-induced dream, until he comes upon the monolith floating is space. Cue music.
The "famous" scene I remember that explains it all - it was all in my head. It's nowhere in the movie. I must have dreamed it. I can't even blame it on drugs - I was only 5 when the movie was released.
So, what does this movie have to teach about storytelling:
- When the writing books say "make the beginning exciting. Draw people into the story." they don't mean you need explosions or car chases on the first page, but 20 minutes of gorilla footage may be a bit much. Gorillas get a paragraph, maybe two. Check your opening pages - are they full of gorillas?
- Create 3-dimensional characters that your readers care about, doing things that matter to the story. A floating pen may be a cool feat in a 1968 film, but if it's not relevant to the story, nobody cares. Check your writing. Does it include beautifully written descriptions that don't really matter in the end? Either make them matter, or send them away.
- Show your readers what's important in the story. If a strange monolith has been uncovered, take us to the archaeological dig. Letting your character tell the story in monologue is heavy handed and uninteresting. Showing takes longer than telling, but if you cut out the gorillas, you'll find you have more time to engage your readers in the story!
- Give your characters a mission, something they want to accomplish, something they care about. Astronauts going about their daily business is not particularly exciting. Astronauts trying to solve the mystery of an unexplained monolith, and possibly save mankind - that matters. What is your MC character trying to accomplish? Is he or she simply moving through history, showing off the signs of the time, or is there a purpose to their actions?
- Provide obstacles, real obstacles, for your character. Being shut out of the spaceship is not particularly frightening if your first solution gets you back in. Shutting down the main computer hardly seems challenging if all that happens is some useless background prattle that hardly seems distracting. What's at risk once the computer is shut down? If he can't get home anyway, what is he accomplishing by shutting HAL down - everyone else is already dead? If it's a suicide mission, should we care if the remaining character lives or dies? How about for your characters? What choices must they make, and what are the consequences of those choices? What are they giving up to reach their ultimate goal - i.e., saving the world.
- What's it all about? Make the end matter. My mind has filled in all sorts of details for the end of this movie that just aren't there - vividly illustrated in my mind. Perhaps there was a "making of" show, or something similar, that provided the footage I so clearly remember. Perhaps the beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey to it's fans is the ability to apply your own interpretation. In the story in my mind, new life, a new civilization, was saved from mankind to grown and prosper in its own way without interference. But in your story, make sure there is a payoff for the reader. Even if your message is big and important, give your reader closure on at least some piece of the story - a troubled character made whole again, some wrong righted, hope for the future. Don't leave the ending of your story untold.
If you have a different interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, feel free to disagree here! If you have a "favorite" movie that has illustrated well writing principles (both good and bad), do share! I'm always looking for examples.