Tag Archives: motivation

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Two

As I wrote in my last post, bad movies can teach you a lot about how not to write. This week, we’ll look at one of the most awful movies of all time – The Evil Dead. Long before the Syfy channel cashed in on the “movies that are so bad they’re good” genre, film buffs were enjoying this 1981 cult classic from Sam Raimi.

Just in case you actually don’t know the plot of this wretched bit of cinema, it unfolds like so: A group of college friends, intending to spend a weekend relaxing in a cabin in the woods, discover a strange book in the cabin’s cellar. They then play back a tape recording on which the previous tenant muses on the book. It’s through this recording that the group discovers that the book is bound in human skin and written in human blood.

Strangely, this is not enough to make them flee; instead, they continue listening to the tape. The voice on the recording pronounces incantations from the book, then reports that this has raised the demons mentioned in the book. These demons have possessed his wife, whom he must now dismember. Naturally, this recording raises the same demons, who possess several of the group; the possessed then do away with all but one of the group (the ever-entertaining Bruce Campbell, playing Ash).

Quite apart from its entertainment value (which, if you have not seen it, you really must), The Evil Dead can teach writers much about giving characters consistent and believable motivation for their actions. Examples of poor decision-making abound in this film, but I’ll give you three.

  1. The tape recording drives Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) to hysteria. Then, when a storm drives a tree through the cabin window, she begins to hear strange voices in the woods. Naturally, as anyone would, she goes outside alone and unarmed, calling out, “Who’s there?” Then, clad in a nightgown and slippers, she begins to wander in the woods. Why this action has no rational motivation: Do I even need to explain it? No reasonable person would wander around in the woods at night, alone, unarmed, and in slippers, especially after hearing mysterious voices in those woods.
  2. As Cheryl wanders in the woods, the trees come to life and attack and rape her. When she escapes and returns to the cabin, once again hysterical and clearly having been attacked, the group pooh-poohs her story. Even more ridiculous, Ash must be convinced to drive Cheryl – who is actually his sister – into town to stay at a hotel (although this plan falls through). Why this action has no rational motivation: True, generally when someone claims to have been attacked by trees, the first impulse is to consider the person nuts – but Cheryl has clearly been attacked by something. This should have been reason enough for the group to abandon their vacation plans. But the incoherent motivation is compounded when Ash is reluctant to drive his own sister into town – if not because she is hysterical, then for medical attention.
  3. When Ash does attempt to drive Cheryl into town, they discover that the bridge connecting their part of the woods with town has been destroyed. Ash thus return with Cheryl to the cabin, where the other two women, Linda (Ash’s girlfriend, played by Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Sarah York) have a great time playing psychic games with cards. Why this action has no rational motivation: No one is troubled by the destruction of their route back to civilization, especially when they have obvious evidence that at the very least, wild animals lurk outside. This bizarre reaction is aggravated by the smashed cabin window, which provides easy entry for those wild animals. What’s more, why are the other two women settling down to an enjoyable game of cards, instead of comforting their companion, who has been attacked?

Almost none of the characters’ behavior in The Evil Dead is rooted in believable motivations. The characters’ failure to take a single reasonable action throughout this film is so egregious that it will cure even the most inobservant writer of the habit of forgetting to consider motivation when crafting a story.

So if you’ve never watched it, do so. Not only is the movie fun for playing Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s a valuable lesson in what not to do in your fiction.

If a Black Cat Crosses Your Path, Pet It: Or, Don’t Rely on Superstitions

As writers, we have the sense that the power in our writing is magic. We don’t think of ourselves as the deliberate, logical creators of the words we write; no, we tend to assume it’s all the work of a fey being whispering the words in our ears. As such, when it comes time to write, we can latch on to superstitions or gimmicks that we think drive the perfect words.

Mostly this happens because when we do, by some mysterious means, manage to write something we think is perfect, we assume something other than ourselves drove the creation. If we used a certain pen to write a manuscript, well, then, it must have been the pen, and we’ll never use another kind. If we were wearing those fuzzy slippers when we wrote that perfect chapter, then they are lucky slippers, and we’ll wear them again next time.

Those, however, are the rather normal superstitions. Others include writing each manuscript in a new spot, or, the superstition goes, the spirits of the last work will interfere with the progress of the new work. Or how about this one: no chapter may have thirteen pages, or the entire work will fail. A pluviophile (someone who loves rain) will only write when it is raining, and one writer had to smell rotten apples while writing.

Certainly, at times, when we are really “on,” the words do flow as if spoken by an unseen force. And at other times, nothing you can do will make the words form themselves the right way. But, though I’m not normally one to knock superstitions (I rather like them), really, it’s not the fetish that’s behind the good parts of your writing. You know what it really is? It’s you.

Yes, horrible and frightening as it is, you and your own mind are the power behind your good writing. The talisman you rely on may, indeed, put you in a mind to write or give you the sense of safety that you need to write well, but believe it or not, good writing can happen without them.

Aleksander SolzhenitsynFor example, when I was in college, I wrote very little. My excuse was that I needed an uninterrupted block of time to write, and with classes, studying, and work, I just didn’t have that time (so I said). I knew this was an excuse, and I finally admitted it when I found out that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich while imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. According to legend, he wrote a few pages each day, memorized what he had written, and then destroyed the evidence.

Well, color me ashamed. If Solzhenitsyn could write while in a brutal prison, I upbraided myself, what’s your excuse?

The fact is, if you are relying on a gimmick to help you write, then you really don’t have faith in your own mind and powers. That’s the real issue with relying on a trick to produce good writing. For the time may come when the pen you love is discontinued, or you may have to move to a desert. Will the writing stop then, or will you learn to rely on your own mental powers? And if you can do it in that circumstance, can you do it now?

Learn to Make a Mess: On Befriending Your Process

Oftentimes, you’ll come up with a great germ of an idea for a story. You’ll dash off to write it, but when you do, you’ll find yourself meandering, following twists and turns that your erratic right brain dreams up seemingly out of nowhere.

Eventually, you end up with a jumbled mess of a draft—plot twists that go nowhere, holes you forgot to fill in, and characters whose situations you forgot to resolve.

If you’re not the sort of writer who outlines before embarking on a project, you’re almost certain to end up with such disarray. While I could take this opportunity to urge you to outline beforehand (and I probably will at some point), I’m going to give you a different bit of advice.

Getting muddy.That advice is to take heart. When you muck about in a draft, you do, invariably, toss up a lot of mud. In fact, you end up with piles of it. Writing is like that: lots of digging around in the earth and getting yourself covered in ick. But while you do dig up a lot of useless mud, you also inevitably stumble on some gold.

And that’s the whole point of the rough draft—finding the gold. When you get to the end of your draft, and you’ve got a sinking feeling that you’ve got a lot of dren, take the time to go back through what you’ve written. My bet is that pieces of the real story are hidden there in all the garbage.

Those are the pieces you want to keep and stitch together into the story you meant to tell. If you’re really the kind of spontaneous writer who refuses to outline, then this is a process you must learn to embrace. Befriend it. In fact, learn to enjoy the ride. Accept that this is how you write, get out your shovel and work boots, and make a mess.

Relax–And Take Your Time With Your Writing

When I was 13, I made up a character I loved. I gave her an entire life history and figured out every detail about her. Then I tried to write her story. I tried writing it several times, from several angles. It never quite came out right.

Then, when I was 16–after a year or two of not thinking about her–I wrote her story with an angle I’d never thought of, but with all the details necessary for that angle. Finally, I knew I’d done her justice.

When you set out to tell a story, you may find that you don’t tell it just right. You finish the piece, you sit back, and you frown. Something about it doesn’t jibe, but you don’t know what. You look through it: Well, I got that detail right. . . . I mentioned that. . . . Why isn’t it working?

Honestly, who knows? If the story is based on a real-life incident, maybe you hewed too closely to the truth at the expense of your imagination. Maybe you never quite lost yourself in the story while you were writing it. Maybe you don’t know enough about the story in your own mind to be able to tell it just yet.

When that happens, it’s okay. Really. That story’s time has just not come. But no piece of writing is ever a failure, because even when you tell it all wrong, at least you end up with the knowledge of how not to tell it.

I like to say that Mother Earth takes her time growing an oak tree; likewise, I give myself permission to take my time with my writing. So instead of obsessing over trying again, just set it aside. The parts of the work that you told right will stay with you. Be patient with the work: in the end, the story will ripen and be ready for the telling. You just have to be ready when it does.

Writing by Hand

One of the biggest problems inexperienced writers encounter is editing themselves as they write. You know how it is: you sit at the computer, deliberating over the next sentence. You write it, finally, and then you go back and you rewrite it. You write the next sentence or two, and then you back up and fix one or two sentences. And so on, and so forth.

I can’t stress enough how detrimental to the creative process it is to edit yourself as you write. When you sit down to write, you simply need to write. Do not edit, “fix,” massage, or otherwise interfere with what you’ve written.

I know, I know. You’re painfully aware that what you wrote on the last page wasn’t right, that you could have said such-and-such better, that you need to look up the capital of Suriname.

Maybe so. But when you pay that sort of hyper-alert attention to your writing during the actual writing process, you’ve giving an ear to your internal censor. Your internal censor, you know, really doesn’t think you should be writing at all. If you pay him the sort of attention that results in your rewording, redescribing, adding to, and Googling obscure details, then pretty soon he will convince you that you shouldn’t have even tried to write whatever it is that you’re writing, and you’ll trash the whole project.

Pen and paperSo how do you overcome the temptation to edit as you write? One simple way is to try an antiquated way of writing known as “writing by hand.” Yes, back in olden times, people actually did write their novels and short stories with pen and paper—and you should try it, too.

Why? Because when you’re writing by hand, you flat-out have less of an opportunity to rewrite. You can’t easily delete, rearrange, and reword much of anything. Whatever you write, well, it stays there.

This might absolutely horrify you. You might think your first efforts are always so terrible that you don’t want to have to look at them.

Again, maybe so. But by writing by hand, you can more easily discipline yourself to do what you should be doing: just writing.

So try it out. Not just for a few pages; stick with it long enough to get the hang of it. Stick with it until you start liking what you’re writing.

You might be surprised how quiet that censor gets.