Originally posted November 5, 2014, over on the ol’ abandoned blog, this was one of two “things you can learn about writing from bad movies” things I wrote. I’ll post the second in a couple days, and I would be delighted to write a few more. I might tackle The Houses October Built for something of this variety (though it will definitely lean a little further toward the feministy in addition to the witerly) if you guys seem to like these, or if you have an idea for a movie I should nit-pick writer style between poetry posts, please let me know in comments and I’ll look into it. 🙂
Probably the most legit piece of writing advice anyone could ever give you is “Read. A lot.” A nifty thing I’ve learned as a Comp. Lit. major is that one can also “read” a film (or song, or piece of art for that matter) as a “text” – that is, pretty much any piece of media can be critiqued and learned from based on its ability to convey information, emotion, etc. So in theory when you’re kicking back to watch a movie you can totally call it research, right? Awesome. I think I recently confirmed this theory by sitting through a really bad movie for no other reason than Norman Reedus. So let’s walk through the things you can learn about the craft of writing even when you’re forcing yourself to sit through some shitty cinema just for the chance to admire a pretty face.
First it’s really important to realize that you can learn just as much from reading something which is poorly written as you can from something which is well written. Beside the fact that reading something which is well-written is a lot of fun, you also learn what good writing looks like: you learn to identify the mechanics in the story line and how they’re working and why, and you can apply those things to your own craft. Fantabulous.
Reading something which is poorly written can be much less fun (unless we’re talking about Sharknado, of course) but it also teaches you how to identify mechanics that aren’t working, how they’re not working and why. Knowing these things allows you not only to avoid such pitfalls, but it also allows you to understand why certain guidelines are so often applied, and if you know why those guidelines are being applied it can help you work with (or, maybe, if you dislike people telling you how to live your life, how to work around) those guidelines.
Pretty early on in Hello Herman I began identifying problems in the writing. Among the most obvious issues but one which cannot be examined as deeply as the others (so I’m just going to get it out of the way and move on): the dialogue was awkward and clunky. There were a number of pieces of dialogue which both dead-ended immediately and didn’t seem to serve any sort of function. If there is anything I learned about writing from The Impeccable Mr. B in CRWR 340, it’s that everything you write needs to earn its right to be there. If it’s not serving a purpose it’s wasting time.
The purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be great. It can be a simple matter of drawing in and involving the reader in some way, i.e. the bit about the lime in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys – I mean, what the hell was up with that? It didn’t actually contribute to the plot in any identifiable way, but it is a thread throughout the novel which makes the reader laugh. That would be enough because it engages the reader with the text, but it could be argued that the humble lime contributes to development of the protagonist as a character every time he has to deal with someone inquiring about the lime. (If one makes the argument about characterization effectively then we must recognize that something as silly as a recurring but ultimately meaningless lime not only functions in the story, but it functions well, pulling its weight by effectively serving not one but two functions.) The point here is that things don’t need to carry a lot of weight to earn their place, but if they don’t carry any weight the reader (or, in this case, viewer) is prone to get annoyed by the fact that you’re wasting their time with superfluous words.
The same is true for characters. I mean, my god – the character of Isa, Lax’s (played by Norman McSexy Pants Reedus) ex-girlfriend seemed to serve two functions: to give someone for Lax to confide in about his emotional struggles with his interviews with Herman and to give us more opportunity to see Lax without his shirt on. The problem is that the conversations these two characters have don’t really accomplish anything, ever. In fact, they can be summed up as such:
Lax: I still love you.
Isa: I’m pissed because you disappeared.
Lax: Sorry about that.
Isa: Not good enough.
Lax: I’m having emotional struggles, though.
Isa: Oh for reals? Maybe you should take better care of yourself or, you know…well, I’m kind of jealous of you, like, I’d probably murder your face to be in your position right now, so…
Lax: You don’t understand. You don’t know me.
Isa: Fine, I’m still pissed anyway.
Lax: But I’m drunk because I’m sad.
Isa: Oh. Okay. Wanna bone?
I’m really not exaggerating (that much) here. That’s just about all their conversations (all of them) accomplish in the entirety of the film. Which is to say…not much at all. These conversations don’t force Lax to deal with his past (he never tells her why he never came back from a job working undercover with some Neo-Nazis down south, or why he never called or wrote) nor do they force him into any deeper understanding about how his interactions with Herman are affecting him or why they’re affecting him as they do. So what exactly are they doing? Exactly nothing because honestly, if Isa was removed entirely the movie wouldn’t be all that different than it is now – except we wouldn’t get to see Norman Reedus’s naked torso as often. But as much as I love this one perk of Isa being around, even I am hard pressed to say that’s reason enough to keep a character.
Pointless characters present the same problems and then some as pointless dialogue: they are a colossal waste of space and, as a result, the reader/viewer’s time. Not only is this frustrating to the reader, it can make the process of consuming the media more complicated: having a bunch of characters to keep track of can be difficult. Ask anyone who’s gotten frustrated enough to walk away from the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. Even when your cast is far more limited than Game of Thrones, you shouldn’t force your reader to try to keep track of characters who contribute absolutely zero to the story. Collapsing together characters where you can and just cutting characters completely are both important skills to develop so you don’t waste your reader’s time and energy (something that’s really important considering that most modern potential readers are barely willing to invest time and energy into reading as it is).
In a different but somewhat related vein, it is also important to know that it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to eloquently and effectively juggle multiple big issues in one story (this is less true in, say, a novel and it is totally manageable in a series). Hello Herman is a wonderful example of a failed attempt to juggle two major issues: mass shootings at schools and racialized violence in the United States. These things could work very well together, but the ways in which these could function together weren’t realized in this movie. Mostly what we’re left with is this weirdly awkward moment in which the writers tried to juggle some raw eggs but ended up splatting them all over us, the viewers. If Herman’s motive for the shooting had been racial it would have made a lot more sense to give Lax the backstory with the Neo-Nazis, but otherwise…the Neo-Nazis play absolutely no role in the present of the story, except to give Lax bad dreams. Could his sexy tormented brooding have been achieved by giving him some variety of background in youth violence, such as bullying and suicide (things incredibly and painfully prevalent in society today and often connected)? Why yes, it could have – and it would have made more sense why he develops such a deep empathy for this mass murderer while still being capable of calling him evil.
Okay okay, so we can see how it could have worked, but why didn’t it work in the version of the film we’re actually seeing? Easy: when you try to juggle too many big-ticket issues in one relatively condensed story (as in a movie or a short story) those different issues almost invariably end up undermining each other. Instead of walking away from your toil and efforts with this sparkling gem of societal critique and philosophizing through the media of narrative fiction, you usually end up with a bunch of incomplete pieces haphazardly spliced together. The intent behind the work is noble, but because the issues undercut each other, each issue drawing attention and energy away from the others while they, in turn, are drawing attention and energy away from it, it’s not often successful in media that isn’t either lengthy (novel) or on-going (series). To deal with multiple issues you have to be willing to spend your own time and energy creating the space with which to effectively discuss those issues on their own grounds, or you have to put in a lot of work to make them work together in such a way that they are inseparable in your text.
Take, for instance, Black Swan, which effectively works with such issues of mental health, sexual abuse, and toxic parent-child relationships by weaving the three together in such a way that to remove one thread weakens the others. Rather than weakening each other, the threads support each other. I imagine this is probably rather difficult to pull off – which is why I haven’t attempted it since I became aware of my tendency toward melodrama (this is an incredible weakness of mine – I love tackling big issues, and for some reason I love tackling ALL OF THE BIG ISSUES in one text…which is, as we have established, poor writerly planning).
Because so much of Hello Herman obviously deals with law, the movie ran into another big issue writing-wise: how law and order works was clearly not researched for this movie. I absolutely detest the idea that you should “write what you know” (I call so much bullshit on this “advice,” but more on that in later post) but if you’re going to write about something you don’t have direct experience with, some very basic research is required, at the very least. Otherwise you’ll end up with asshole readers like me outlining the ways in which your text fails on even the most basic level.
Hello Herman got a number of the facts about the functioning of the court system wrong, starting with how quickly Herman went to trail: unless it wasn’t made clear that more time had elapsed (which is still a serious problem of clarity) then we are lead to believe that the trial starts within a couple of days of the incident – not enough time to go through the jury selection, collecting and ordering all evidence/witnesses/testimony, have the defendant speak with a psychiatric professional to determine psychological status, etc. etc. I suppose I could believe the trial only lasted a couple of days and that a verdict came back within a day or two, but I am absolutely not willing to believe that the jury came back with a verdict and a sentencing. In some cases the jury can make recommendations for sentencing but the jury certainly doesn’t sentence the defendant; that is a different process entirely. And I refuse to believe he went to execution so quickly. It takes years for a person to get to the point of actual execution and it typically involves multiple appeals (so many appeals, so much tax payer money).
Because the writers failed to do some preliminary fact-checking, they lost my (and likely many other viewer’s) suspension of disbelief. Without the reader’s suspension of disbelief, your work of fiction simply doesn’t function. So if you’re passionate enough about something to write about it and you don’t have direct experience or pre-existing knowledge about it, do the research to do it justice in your up-coming gem.
Lastly, and this part is a little wishy-washy but feels important to include: Hello Herman attempted to tackle two big issues, and clearly intended to do something noble with the telling of this story, but (aside from all of the other failings from a strictly writing techniques/mechanisms stand-point) it stumbled over its inability to say anything new, or to examine the old ideas and beliefs in a new light. In other words, this particular story brought nothing new to the table. It addressed many of the theoretical causes of school shooting that have already been discussed ad nauseam: bullying, violent video games, egotistical madness. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with exploring these subject matters in this context, but if you’re going to be beating a very thoroughly beaten dead horse you better find a new way to do it, otherwise your story is going to be lost among the hundreds (if not thousands) of stories that have already done the same exact thing before.
Aside from the issue of your story being lost in the waves of stories already addressing these issues, it seems important to me to note that any story seeking to explore these subjects and themes should absolutely bring something new to the discussion about those subjects and themes. If a story dealing with such hot-button issues isn’t saying something new about the matter, then what exactly is the point in saying anything at all?
All of that said, it is clear that Hello Herman sought to do something noble but just stumbled and fell too often to accomplish that goal – though it did have an interesting premise. A story unfolding through the course of an interview between an indie liberal journalist and a mass killer? Hell yeah, that has all sorts of potential! It was just executed poorly. But hey, at least we could take away some solid lessons from its failings.
Oh yeah, and this. We got to enjoy this:
Yes, the make-up artists were too lazy to cover up his “Norman” tat and instead just printed on “RIP” above it. Keepin’ it classy.