For the math geeks out there:
Archive for February, 2008
I’m teaching now over at the University of North Carolina. When I say ‘over’ I mean about two miles over from where I live. I really like it. It surprises me, in fact, how much I like it. I have two classes every Tuesday and Thursday, and get to talk to the most eager, intelligent and promising — uh — I guess I can call them ‘youngsters’ now that I am almost fifty years old.
I’m always trying to find the simplest way to explain the most important thing: how to tell a story. That’s my job, after all. Writing a good story is, I admit, a difficult thing to do. But if the beginning writer can simplify the process, boil it down to the bone, his or her chances of success are much greater. Once you learn how all the basic parts work you can start adding to the parts and build something really big that’s never been seen before in the world.
So this is what I did. I drew this picture. It has everything a story needs. It’s a template. Start here, is what I’m telling them, and you can go far.
Don’t take it literally: i.e., don’t write a story about a guy who wants a bit of a girl’s muffin. Just use these three parts: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the thing the protagonist wants, the thing the antagonist denies him. And voila.
Does this make sense?
A million and a half years ago, when Big Fish was optioned to be a film, I had two main thoughts. The first was, Thanks for the money. And the second was, If it ever gets made — which it probably won’t — this is going to be one very bad movie. How could it not be? The book has no real plot to speak of, and only one real character. Doesn’t sound like the most propitious beginning for a movie, does it? So I figured if it ever did get made they were going to have to change it pretty radically, transform it into something which in the end would have little or nothing to do with the book. And that was fine with me because a) I still had the money and b) I still had the book. The book wouldn’t change. If Big Fish did turn out to be the worst movie in the history of movie-making, I would still have more readers than I ever had before. I couldn’t lose.
Then I met John August. He’s the guy who found the book, read it, and saw the movie in it — the screenwriter. He took the book to Sony and basically wouldn’t leave until they said they would option it for him. I met John for the first time in ’99 at a rest stop off I-95 near Richmond (long story) and we went to a pizza place and talked for two or three hours about the book — what we thought it was about. And luckily (because as I have since learned, this doesn’t always happen) we thought it was about the same things. 18 months and four drafts later, he had written an amazing screenplay. What you see when you see the movie are his words given shape and form for the screen, for which we have to thank Tim Burton, and for which Tim Burton has to thank John August.
I had a lot preconceived notions about what a Hollywood screenwriter was like, as I’m sure many of us do. Suffice it to say, John was none of those things. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. He’s also one of the smartest. This is immediately evident when you visit his website, and even more so when you read his scripts. Scripts are how-to manuals, in a way, directions for a director, new ones written for every movie made. But John’s scripts can stand on their own, much like a novel. They’re beautiful. If you’re interested in screenwriting you have to take a look at what he’s done. He has a few on his site, I believe. Look.
What I admire most about him is his ability to shift between styles — from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Charlie’s Angels. He knows how to tell a story the way it has to be told to be the thing it’s supposed to become. He brings his own style with him, of course, which includes a lot of humor and a fondness for a unique structure, but he’s always open to change, open to the possibilities presented by each project. Of all the writers I know, it’s his talent and intelligence I’d like to have a little bit of myself.
So. This is my long-winded way of saying: see The Nines. It’s the first movie he wrote and directed, and it is wildly wonderful in about 99 different ways. It’s on Amazon, it’s on Netflix. And so much more about it is on John’s site. Enjoy.
But I continue to write. Somebody wondered whether I was writing and statistically if one person mentions something at least two other people have thought the same thought in passing. So I should address it: yes, I am writing . . . a novel! Excited? I bet. I’m about 125 pages into it, and now I’m a little nervous because I’m not completely sure what’s supposed to happen next, and I’m afraid to show it to anyone because something might get said that changes the novel’s intended course, which, as I said, is a mystery to me. Also, I do like it, and I want to finish it, and if the first half was read and the reaction wasn’t to my liking — well, I hate to think what might happen. Clearly, I have issues.