What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part One

Far from being mere mindless wastes of an hour and a half, bad movies can actually teach the observant viewer much about what not to do in fiction. Now, you might think you can learn far more valuable lessons from good fiction, but in my opinion, bad examples are the more instructive because they are so blatant, whereas good literature is so seamless that only a very critical eye can identify the craftsmanship. So, as examples, I have selected three absolutely terrible movies: Congo, Evil Dead (1981), and Riddick.

This week, we’ll talk about Congo. This cringeworthy 1995 movie, based on the eponymous book, stands out for its shameless use of one-dimensional stock characters. Herewith, a list.

  • R.B. Travis – The head of TraviCom, a multinational communications firm, he’s your typical heartless businessman. When we meet Travis, he is still carrying his golf club (because don’t all executives spend their days making deals on the golf course?). Worse, when a TraviCom expedition for a rare diamond, led by his own son, meets with disaster, it’s not his son Travis wants to rescue – it’s the diamond. Why you should avoid this character: In real life, anyone this devoid of humanity is clearly a sociopath and probably behind bars.
  • Karen Ross – Ah, yes, the Tough Bitch. Ross bullies her way into an expedition, takes no crap from the African warlord who temporarily kidnaps her team, shoots down heat-seeking missiles from an airplane, jumps out of that airplane, shoots lasers, and single-handedly takes down Travis. She’s the resourceful, no-nonsense gal who turns out to be more useful than those sissyboys. Why you should avoid this character: The Tough Bitch is designed to be incongruous, cause, see, she’s a girl, but she’s still tough! Will wonders never cease? The attempt to turn a stereotype (damsel in distress) on its head is now just another stereotype.
  • Elliot and his pet, hanging out.Dr. Peter Elliot – A primatologist after Dr. Doolittle’s own heart, Elliot prefers animals to humans, because, as he reassures Ross, “Humans are dangerous. Gorillas are very gentle.” When Ross asks Elliot whether his pet gorilla is dangerous, he defends animal honor with, “Don’t perpetuate the . . . myth of the killer ape!” Surprise, surprise, killer apes off most of their team by movie’s end. Why you should avoid this character: The classic wide-eyed innocent, this character is clearly ignorant of the very animals he professes to prefer; anybody who truly studies animals respects animals enough to know they’re deadly when crossed.
  • Eddie Ventro – The Quirky Guy. See, we know Eddie’s unconventional, because when he comes on-screen, he’s wearing a brightly colored shirt – in the middle of a war zone! He also sports a single, dangling earring. Sassy! Why you should avoid this character: Real humans are much more complex than the sum total of their outfits and jewelry.
  • Munro Kelly – The Great White Hunter leading the expedition into the Congo, he’s seen it all, is fazed by nothing, and has a droll remark about everything. Also, he’s supposed to be British, but Ernie Hudson, who plays Kelly, has the worst British accent I’ve ever heard. Why you should avoid this character: Jaded and world-weary is cliché. Especially cliché, because it seems Hudson has never actually heard an Englishman speak, which is the cinematic equivalent of putting an exotic foreigner (about whose culture you know nothing) in your novel just to give it some spice. And speaking of exotic foreigners . . .
  • Herkermer Homolka – Posing as a rich Romanian philanthropist, Herkermer is consumed by a single-minded covetousness that, predictably, leads to his grisly death, because Evil People Should be Punished. Why you should avoid this character: Instant karma doesn’t always get you.

So, what can this horrible movie teach you about writing fiction? Don’t take the easy out of making your characters cardboard cutouts. No one is this much of a caricature. If you’re writing a villain, give him or her a redeeming characteristic; if you’re writing a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum, make that a surprise. Real people are complicated and confusing, and nobody is a textbook case of anything. Give your characters a break – give them souls.

Why Beta Readers Are Crucial to Your Success

As a writer, you may think of yourself a solitary genius, turning out inspired work in the midnight hours as you down cup after cup of coffee. It’s true that the actual writing may be best performed when you shut out the world, but if you want to actually finish a piece, it’s essential that you leave your hermitage and seek outside opinions from what’s called beta readers.

Beta readers read your draft and provide invaluable constructive criticism to help you bring a piece from draft to finished copy. And often, these outside opinions are crucial in turning rejections into published pieces. How’s that? Well, for one simple reason: it’s not always easy to translate the story in your head to paper.

You see, when you write a piece, you know what you meant to say, and when you read it back to yourself, your brain fills in anything that’s missing from the draft. You simply don’t notice that that we don’t know why your main character was in prison or that your character’s sister worked as a bounty hunter. Maybe you even know you weren’t specific, but think the backstory is obvious or even unimportant.

It’s true that a reader can make some educated guesses, but why would you make your reader work? As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, fiction has one primary purpose: to entertain. Gaps in a work force your readers to figure out all the essential details in order to understand what’s going on, and that defeats the purpose of reading fiction.

Note that leaving out essential information is not the same as deliberately crafting a mystery. While a mystery story requires that certain information not be revealed, you must still provide all the details that your reader needs to know to understand the story at that point. Conversely, even in a mystery story, if readers are confused instead of intrigued, you run the risk of losing them.

So do yourself and our readers a favor and bring in beta readers. And be sure to swallow your pride when you do, because I guarantee that they will call some part of the story that you’re most proud of into question. What do you do then? You take it like a grownup and adjust the work accordingly. Because no matter how brilliant you think your work is, if readers don’t enjoy it, no one will care what your message is.

Here is a list of fifteen questions you can ask your beta readers.

He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags

Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, lists fifty-nine synonyms for “say.” You can declare, assert, and reply; announce, communicate, and utter. So many lovely words to choose from in order to say the same thing!

Do this right now: Take a Sharpie and mark out every single one of these synonyms. Because “say” and its forms are quite sufficient for most dialogue.

Here, for example, is a passage of dialogue from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

”Ho Dink,” Ender said. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” said Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” said Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink said.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's GameThe passage goes on, using “said” each time the speaker is quoted. Why didn’t Card mix it up with some declarations, assertions, and communications? Because “say” is a lot like an, and, a, and the. Readers don’t notice the word when it’s used, so it doesn’t get in the way of the flow of the story. In fact, in journalism classes, students are taught to stick to “said” for just this reason.

Let’s see the same passage with a few synonyms replacing “said.”

”Ho Dink,” Ender greeted him. “Sit.”

”You gold-plated fart,” responded Dink cheerfully. “We’re all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake.”

”A habit,” replied Ender.

”One victory is not a habit,” Dink rebutted him.

Do you notice those dialogue tags? I certainly do; I trip over them every time.

Try this experiment: take any well-written, contemporary novel, and check out a passage of dialogue. I’m willing to bet you’ll see the dialogue tag “said” used most of the time. And if it’s good enough for those writers, it’ll probably do just fine for you, too.

Beware of Pretty Prose

In 1920, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft published his guidelines for writing good fiction. The list recommended reading good fiction, judicious description, good grammar – and an impressive vocabulary.

Here is his exact recommendation:

The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. . . . With a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

H.P. LovecraftThough the list is quite good in general, it’s that last rule that we must strike. For about eighty years or so before Lovecraft, and during his career as well (he wrote in the 1920s and ‘30s), writers tended to turn out ornate, pretty prose – think Poe, Henry James, Faulkner, and Lovecraft himself. Unfortunately for poetic souls, this has fallen out of favor.

Let’s take a passage from Lovecraft himself. Here is the concluding paragraph of his short story “The Nameless City,” published in 1921.

And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-pooled darkness of earth’s bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.

Certainly this is a beautiful passage – if you read Lovecraft in the context of his time, this writing is wonderful. Unfortunately, these days potential publishers wouldn’t touch such writing. I doubt they’d even read beyond the first page.

Many beginning writers fall into the “pretty prose” trap. The feeling seems to be that the bigger and more impressive the words and the more ornate the sentences, the better the prose must be. I certainly did this, and I still haven’t completely shaken the habit of writing overly long sentences. What this sort of writing amounts to today is just wordiness.

What to do? Simplify, simplify, simplify. After you’ve written a piece, print it off and go through it with that dreaded red pen. Did you write, “Presently, the voices, while still chaotic before me, seemed to my beating brain to take articulate form behind me,” when “Soon, the jumbled voices became clear to me” would work just as well? Did you write a string of adjectives such as “a nightmare horde of rushing devils, hate-distorted, grotesquely panoplied, half-transparent”? Clean it up – use just “grotesque devils.”

I know – it hurts you. But as I’ve said before, if it’s bad, kill it. The power of words lies not in their complexity, but in their precision. It’s not impressive to use three adjectives for one; it’s merely blather.

Here is the complete list of Lovecraft’s rules for aspiring writers.

Transform Your Fiction With Le Mot Juste

Today, we’re going to talk about the concept of le mot juste. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase; coined by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, the term translates to “the right word.” Flaubert described it thus:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, and that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations . . . to escape the difficulty.

Gustave FlaubertCareful writers will obey this advice in order to avoid clichés. Here, for example, is a passage I wrote in an old story of mine, “Russia after the Fall of Communism.” The story follows a recently widowed woman, Jonny, who does not now know what to do with her new freedom. Working as a waitress in a diner, she meets a man who understands immediately what sort of woman she is and what she needs.

I described their understanding in this way:

She did not have to obey. Other, misunderstanding women would have turned him out. But he knew this native tongue, knew how to navigate the knots of her heart, and like a lost dog she submitted.

You may or may not like this style of writing, but when I wrote the above passage, I labored over my word choices for some time. I could have written simply, “He understood Jonny and what to say to compel her to obey.” But in my mind, such a passage would have been a cop-out. Writing only that he understood her gives the reader no insight into Jonny’s state of mind, which is key in the story’s denouement. Thus, I searched for several hours for just the right words.

However, the search for le mot juste doesn’t have to end in an overly complicated sentence. As often as not, the right word may be a good old Anglo-Saxon word – cram, briny, gore. Your search for the right word is not the search for the most impressive word; it is a search for the most precise word.

As always, this should never trip you up while you are drafting. Save it for your second draft, once you’ve worked the kinks out of the plot. But when you do go back to smooth out your draft, be vigilant, asking yourself if you’ve resorted to any tricks, any shorthand, any faded images. Often, an otherwise banal story can be transformed by the right word choices.