I just watched Black Swan. It’s a movie that came out way back in 2010. I wasn’t ready to watch it at that time. But anyway, I liked watching it. The story is about a ballerina named Nina learning how to be the lead in Swan Lake, White Swam/Black Swan.
I didn’t know the story of Swan Lake before hearing it in the movie. It’s about a girl that’s turned into a swan, the White Swan. Finding love to escape the curse. She finds a Prince to love. Before he can turn her back, he is seduced by her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan. The White Swan is heartbroken. Instead of living as a swan without her love, she commits suicide.
According to the movie, the White Sawn requires perfect ballet. Nina is very good at precision and the perfect ballet required for that role. The Black Swan requires a more natural style. Nina can’t allow ballet to happen. She can’t let herself go and simply respond to the music. She can’t be out of control. That’s the part she can’t do.
The movie is about learning to let go and batting her self-injuring tendencies. Nina unconsciously harms herself and imagines perfecting herself by throwing away unacceptable parts of herself. I think that stems from her desire to be loved by her mother. If Nina isn’t perfect, she doesn’t get affection, just a strong hand controlling her. Anyway, Nina’s symptoms get worse with the pressure on her.
Nina is jealous of the new ballerina in the company, Lily. I liked Lily’s character much more than the troubled Nina. Lily is a natural. She let’s herself go in the movement of the dance. I enjoyed the unself-conscious way she moves through the world. I hoped a little of Lily would rub off on Nina.
I wanted a different storyline than what was presented to us. I wished Nina and Lily built a relationship, so Nina would learn what she needed to. That sadly didn’t happen. Events evolved in a different way that I didn’t like much.
Black Swan was a great movie. It made me think, and I love movies like that. Isn’t it startling how deeply our parents can influence our future self’s. It even more fascinating that we can’t remember the formative time before the age of two and a half years. Those few years greatly determine our personalities.
Memoir is really very similar to fiction in how it’s written. They both follow the same structure. Events are organized in the framework of a story. The flow isn’t interrupted to preserve the totality of events. Things that pertain to the story being told are included. Everything else is left out. Fiction is an additive method. Memoir is subtractive. You take a subset of everything you remember and from that into a cohesive story. Events are picked from a multitude of things that actually happened.
This selection of events is apparent in movies based on true events or a dramatization of the truth. Take for example, Steve Jobs. I’ve watched three versions of Jobs’ life. First, the biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, Jobs. Then the factual documentary Man in the Machine. Finally, Steve Jobs directed by Arron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender.
Each movie had a different angle. Jobs was about Jobs getting ideas and using them to be the best. Man in the Machine is trying to be as unbiased as possible. It was the most balanced but tried to talk about the relatively unknown things about Jobs. Steve Jobs was controversial in its directorial and writing direction. It omitted his accomplishments for the most part and focused on his relationship with his daughter, Lisa.
All in all, the based on true story movies tried to make Jobs relatable. And the perception of Jobs was he wasn’t approachable. He was a strict, straight to business type of guy. He had stringent expectations and expected them to be met. He was thought to be the driving force behind Apple’s success. Each movie took a different approach to humanize and create a connection with the audience. Sorkin focused on Jobs’ personal life and matched it to Apple’s performance/Jobs’ fortunes. Jobs started us with Jobs as a student that couldn’t really connect with anyone except when he started Apple. Man in the Machine used his relationship with the mother of his daughter.
Memoir and fiction follow the same pattern. First, we see the character before anything starts. Then, something happens they have to react to. Then, they try fixing the problem different ways and fail successive times. Then, something starts working. Finally, the character succeeds, finds something that changes their life forever, and the story ends. This matches the character arc of a fictional story. Fiction adds an external conflict. When the character arc is the main conflict, it’s a literary story.
Some recent stories have a strong character arc and conflict arc that are nearly equivalent in importance. Take The Girl on the Train as an example. The character arc of Rachel’s drinking and the central conflict of finding Megan’s killer. Or Gone Girl. The internal conflict is how Amy feels about Nick and the external conflict is Amy’s murder. Adding a strong character arc to a compelling plot brings a story up by an arm and a leg.
I recently read Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara. She is a prolific writer of memoirs and personal essays. She pointed out some key points. You have to be a hero, not a victim. It’s easy in this society and time to feel like a victim. You need a time in your life where you take action. A bad thing comes your way, and you fix it. Getting your car stolen is bad luck. Bad stuff happens. But if you track down the thieves, steal your car back, and you learn how to overcome a debilitating fear of confrontation. Then, it becomes a story that works in a memoir.
You need to be done with the problem. If you haven’t found a way out, there’s nothing really there. Struggling and still struggling with the issue you want to write about, it is too soon. The writer needs perspective to make a memoir. You need to know the lesson and be detached enough to know what really happened. People read a memoir to gain a new understanding of the human condition. Something that can help figure out life, a little better.
A few things are in the way of me writing personal essays. When I write about myself, the writing comes out snobbish and stand-offish. I have allows been a little showoff. For years, I never knew why I wanted to prove my intelligence. Recently, I found the reason behind it. I have always felt less than everyone else because of my physical limitations. I always felt a little trapped by my condition. My way out and to feel better about being “less”, I try to feel equal by proving my intelligence more than balances out my physical weakness. That realization changed a lot, but I still worry about falling back into old habits.
When I have in-depth conversations about my intense emotional states and the inner workings of my mind, the person on the other end doesn’t understand me. That’s because I’ve never tried telling people even a percentage of that stuff. I have trouble relating to other people. I’ve been anti-social for that long. I’m slowly improving there.
This is an example of a recent conversation where I try to get better at explaining something.
Recently saw Collateral Beauty. It’s about a father that recently lost his 6-year-old daughter to cancer. He writes letters to Death, Time, and Love and they reply. Towards the end, there was a really emotional scene where he admits his daughter is dead. I actually had tears forming a well in my eyes but didn’t allow any out. I pulled away emotionally.
Why didn’t you let your tears come? Don’t you think you’re cutting out emotion unnecessarily?
Whenever I describe something in too much detail, it doesn’t make sense. I need to fix that before writing a memoir. I’ll try my usual description first.
Emotional history: Started as a person with normal reactions to my emotions. Feeling them and becoming numb when some emotion became too much. Everyone does that except it isn’t going to happen frequently for most people. For example losing a close loved one. That might happen a few times. Simple sadness was enough to make me numb after a little while.
Then I started to decrease the threshold before I became numb. It worked for a time, and I reached my goal to fit as a male in American society. At one point, I was unable to feel anything.
Then, I slowly reduced the threshold when numbness happened. Through that still ongoing process, I thought I was rediscovering something I lost. That moment, watching that movie, I was in a struggle to stay there and feel. Becoming numb would have been slightly easier. There was a standstill and anything could tip the balance. Something did.
A better image. Everyone has three parts to their psyche. We’ll ignore the superego. There are various names that work for superego like conscience, mother’s voice, God, and hindsight. We’ll ignore that.
There’s a childish side or you at your weakest, id, baby, or the person you would be without an external influence. Then the protector, ego, or what the world made you into. The protector usually acts in small ways. Like covering your face, when you cry. Hiding you away, when you’re boiling mad. Putting on a brave face, when you’re really scared. It basically reacts to what the baby wants and finds a socially acceptable way to meet those needs.
What happens with normal emotions? The protector does those little things. When something too much happens, like the death of a close loved one, the protector says, “Baby, you need some time in your quite room. I’ll be with you the whole time. Too much is going on out here.” You become numb while the baby has some time away from life.
For someone like me, the baby cries bloody murder when something sad happens. Everything is exaggerated beyond the average. A baby like that spends too much time in the quite room. That baby never gets to experience a lot, because a lot of things are too much.
I increased the sensitivity of my protector to the baby by showing the protector more emotional states. Like an abused child, the protector grew more attuned to the tormentor, the whiny baby. Then the baby spends less time out and then none at all.
Right now, I’m dismantling the safe room. If an external threat appears, the deconstruction stops or reverses temporarily. Very similar to the process of growing up.
That’s still a little confusing.
The other part is sharing too much. The vulnerability of it. We’re all scared to sharing too much. That allows the possibility of getting hurt. The more you share, the greater the rejection. I feel like I should share my life’s lessons. I’ve been through a lot. Moving to a different country at five and never going back. My medical experiences that vastly over date my time to 28 years of age. Then the lessons meditation taught me. Finally finding meaning in my life. There is a lot I could share. There might be a memoir in my future. We’ll see.
Larry Brooks is a published author that has writing classes/workshops. In Story Engineering, he shows us what he teaches his students about writing fiction. Apparently, writing a screenplay is very easy in comparison. Books out there detail the rules required in an acceptable screenplay. Larry Brooks has brought that over to fiction writing. If you ignore the condescension of organic writes, the book brings a needed insight to novel writing.
Story Engineering starts with an argument against the formulaic nature of planning out a story using his components. The difference between art and putting matching things into a formula is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant while reading it. That’s one of the few things not explained in Story Engineering. I figured out a possible explanation. The various story elements, concept, story structure, character, theme, writer’s voice, and scene construction have a synergy between them. Each element builds on another. For example, first person, solitary confinement, weak mental state, and being alone is inhumane. With first person, we are with the inmate at all times. There’s minimal interaction with other people. Add the weak mental state and there’s a compelling story. Add examples of what other inmates in solitary confinement come out as. That makes a pretty good story right?
Concept is the central question of the story. Story structure is the pacing of the story. The author does a really good job of getting this point across through the book. What plot event should happen at certain points throughout the story? Several movies and books are discussed as examples. Every book and movie I remember follows the plot events. I’m not sure about the timing yet.
Character is presented as a personality selector you would use in The Sims. Different characteristics that can be tweaked to show the universality of humanity. Figuring out how each characteristic affects the others is where the art part comes in. Then the character arc. That was completely new to me.
I use a few lines of research to understand how characters operate. First, observing people and imagining what goes through their heads. Talking to people and looking for the motivations. Deeply analyzing my psyche through meditative practice. And method acting in my head. What would this character do if that happened?
Theme is the meaning behind the story. The story can give an opinion or explore a question. Figuring out what to say helps put it into the novel.
Writer’s voice is something that needs to be discovered through writing and trying different things. Scene construction states each scene has a mission. The scene needs to be short enough to accomplish its mission.
Reading Story Engineering will forever change my novel writing. I was already close, and now I get it for the first time. Larry Brooks knows his stuff. Great book Mr. Brooks.
The casting added something that felt real to me, Michael Keaton (Riggan). I remember him well from that 90’s Batman franchise directed by Tim Burton, That was the only time I remembered who he was apart from the character. I recognized Naomi Watts (Lesley) from somewhere, probably King Kong. The character that really got me in the story was Sam (Emma Stone). I found the problems in her attractive, probably because I wrote a similar character a few months ago.
The cinematography drew me in. It was a window into the normal world, walking and how everything looks from that angle. I sit or lay down throughout my day. Every rarely am I looking from eye level of someone standing. The camera shifted in and out of third person to different character perspectives. I liked the closeness to the characters talking. The frustration of Sam when spoke about how outdated her father was became visceral in a way that movies almost never have for me. I sit all the time. People are either right next to me or in front 4 feet away. Imagine never directly facing someone when you talk or being 4 feet away. Looking over railing is impossible for me. I have to parallel park my chair or look at the railing from feet away. This was shown once in Birdman.
The rooftop scenes were scary. Heights are down right scary if you can’t stop yourself falling. I can’t. Truth or dare seems so unrealistic and overused. Do people actually play that game in situations of hidden attraction or friendship? That part where Mike (Edward Norton) describes Sam as special, “burning the candle at both ends”, sounds written. The options there are either call it out or change that part into something else. I would have described it differently. Still good.
The superpowers were interesting even if we couldn’t be sure they actually existed. Levitation, telekinesis, and flight. Everything the fictional Birdman could do. Riggan became so invested in the character, it became a part of him as a voice that degraded him. We all have a little voice in the back of heads, telling us everything that could go wrong. It was an interesting plot piece that severed as an easy source of motivation.