Tuesday, December 25, 2012


I tried to watch two movies today. Couldn't stand either one. They had the same problem: Failed to make the audience give a damn.

I think movies and stories are all about caring. The reader or audience has to give two hoots and a holler about the story and the characters, who in turn have to care about something that is hugely important to them.

They have to give enough of a damn about something or someone to take a great, huge, scary emotional or physical risk. Otherwise we don't have a story.

Today's movies took two different approaches. "The Stratosphere Girl," is about a 15-year-old budding cartoonist who has a boring life. She needs to get away, and when I watched it, so did I.

It is very hard to show a character who is bored without boring the audience to tears. I lasted about 10 minutes. I probably didn't get to the good part, if there was one.

The other movie, "Sleepless Night," is a French thriller that plunges us into action right away. Two guys are pulling an armed robbery. Guns. Speed. Chase. Shoot-out. Bang-bang. A knife. Slice, cut, blood. Foot chase. Bag of cocaine.

You get the idea. But who cares? Not me. These two guys don't seem to care about anything except the bag of cocaine, which has no emotional resonance for me. For one thing, it is a big fat cliche. (The filmmakers needed a MacGuffin, and that was easy, I guess.)

Later, they show one of these thugs dealing with his teenage son, whom he loves very much. That is supposed to make us care. But it does not. We have already seen him shooting at people. So I am not going to care about him. It's too late.

I look back at my list of favorite movies and realize they all start with the main characters caring about something very much.

"The Godfather" starts with the wedding scene. The old man grants favors on the day his daughter gets married. He has to. He cares about the Sicilian tradition, and about his daughter, and his god-son, and so on. We see his power, and we also see his sense of honor, and his caring.

"Silence of the Lambs" starts with Clarice Starling working out on the FBI obstacle course. She wants to become an agent in the worst possible way. She cares about her work, and about stopping the killer, "Buffalo Bill." She will take any chance, any risk, to get the job done. Her caring makes us care about her.

When you write a story, show that your characters give a damn about something that is so important to them that they will take a huge risk for it. It can be an emotional or physical risk, or both.

You have to care about it, and so do your characters. Otherwise, we won't give two hoots and a pile of horse dung. If they don't care, we won't care. And there goes your story, and quite possibly your career.

-- Roger

Copyright © 2012, Roger R. Angle  

Saturday, December 22, 2012


For years I tried to give my novel writing students, both in private workshops and at various colleges, this advice: Don't seek success by imitating some famous writer you admire.

We already have a Dean Koontz, an Elmore Leonard, a Lee Child, a John Grisham. And in most cases one is enough, sometimes more than enough.

Not that you can't learn from them. You can. But you should also learn from the classics, the great literature of the past. I was talking to my friend Harry today, and he said that too many young writers today have not learned from Sophocles and the ancient Greeks, from Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, or Melville.

It is true. Learn from the masters, but don't try to become them. They did what they did better than anyone. You are not likely to do it better. We don't need another "Short Life Of Francis Macomber" or another "Hamlet."

But what you can do better than anyone is be yourself. Use your own life and experience as material. Faulkner found enough material in Oxford, Mississippi, to become one of the world's great writers.  

If you want to be successful, dig deeply into your soul and your psyche and your experience, and don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself. I had an actor friend who said that was the most important thing. Be vulnerable. Don't try to be strong and tough and famous like someone you admire.

Here is a great little story about how a writer-director-actor named Mark Duplass and his brother made a mistake trying to make a movie like "Rocky": http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/09/mark-duplass-on-why-his-sports-movie-was-a-big-mistake.html

They found success by making a short film about one of them trying to perfect the outgoing message on his cell phone's voice mail. It cost $3 to make and launched their careers.

Trying to imitate John Grisham or Sylvester Stallone, I think, is a way to avoid taking chances, and that is not the way to succeed. You have to strike out on your own, find your own material, your own themes, your own stories, and your own voice. 

Being a new quarterback calling your own plays may scare the hell out of you, but that is OK. Sometimes, you gotta throw the long ball, to continue the football metaphor. Even if you're a rookie.

-- Roger

Copyright © 2012, Roger R. Angle