Water for Elephants: A Movie Review

There surely has been a drought this spring of movies worth venturing out to see, so I was pleased when Water for Elephants, based on a best selling novel, hit the theaters.

The story is narrated by ninety year old Jacob Janowski after his family forgets to show up at the “home” where he lives to take him to the circus.  He relates how a personal tragedy interrupted his plans in 1931 and sent him out on the rails where he joined the Benzini Brother’s Circus as a vet.  Times were tough and circus life was gritty and often violent.

Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of August, the ringmaster, whose brutality sparks the biggest disaster in circus history.  Jacob and Marlena survive, rescue Rosie the elephant and a Jack Russell terrier, and after a successful stint with Ringling Brothers, settle down to raise five sons who forget about Jacob when he is 90.  The circus boss he tells the story to offers him a job, and Jacob feels like he’s coming home.

It’s a decent story, but…

The “but” is that I never really engaged with the characters.  What is the magic that causes us to bond and identify with a character in a movie or a novel?  You can’t say what it is, but you know it when it happens and you know when it doesn’t.  I actually felt worse when Rosie the elephant was beaten that when the goons beat up Jacob.

In contrast to Water for Elephants, my heart was really gripped by another movie about an old man who loses his wife and home but reinvents himself at the end of life.  This was the animated feature, Up (2009).  Up required a surreptitious kleenex in the theater.  Water for Elephants?  Not even close.

I would be curious to hear a response to the movie by someone who read the book first.  In retrospect, I feel like the movie made unsuccessful attempts to manipulate me.  Take August, the villain.  At one point during the movie, Mary leaned over and whispered, “bipolar.”  I said, “alcoholic.”  On the way home we agreed on a dual diagnosis, and now, on Wikipedia, I read that in the book he was pegged as a paranoid schizophrenic – not that circus roustabouts in 1931 knew what that is.  And regardless, if understanding of the villain’s bad behavior depends on a diagnosis, something is missing from the story.

I’m not sorry I went to see this movie, but unfortunately, I have to suggest that others save their money.

The Three Act Structure

In his book, Plot and Structure, (see the link in my previous post), author and speaker, James Scott Bell, offers this definition of his terms.  Plot concerns the elements of a story, what happens.  Structure is about the timing of those events – when they happen.

The Three Act Structure is the default of storytelling and has been, according to Bell, at least since time of Aristotle.  A novelist doesn’t need to use it, but like an oil painter who decides to forgo a flat, rectangular surface, it is good to know what you are doing instead.

Screenwriters don’t even have the choice to stray.  So pervasive is the influence of Syd Fields, a champion of the three act structure in movies, that studios often specify it in their contracts.  (See the link to Syd Fields’ Screenplay in this post ( https://thefirstgates.com/2010/08/26/a-novel-planning-method/ ).

Every writer about writing who discusses what belongs in the Beginning, Middle, and End is implicitly endorsing what Bell and Fields refer to as Act I, Act II, and Act III, but both of these writers offer more detailed terminology that helps flesh out the concept.  Setup, Conflict, Resolution are Fields’ terms.  I once heard a screenwriter use those exact words to describe what you need to pitch to a producer in the three sentences or so they are willing to listen to.  Literary agents give similar advice.

Bell and Fields offer nearly identical diagrams of the three act structure:

The thing to notice here is the timing.  Act I, the Setup, where we meet the protagonist(s), their problem, and their world lasts for about a quarter of the story.  Act II, the trials and tribulations lasts for half of the novel or movie, and Act III, which often includes a final battle or chase, takes up the last quarter of the manuscript.

Syd Fields uses “Plot Point” to signal the dramatic event that bridges two of the Acts.  I prefer Bell’s term, “Doorway of No Return,” because usually the previous world is swept away, and going home again is no longer possible.  Neo chooses the red pill.  Louise shoots a man.  A rider interrupts the party at Tara to announce that the Civil War has begun.

It’s fun to watch for the moment this happens in movies, since the timing tends to be very precise.  In a two hour film, something will occur very close to the half-hour point that locks the hero into the conflict – he cannot go back to the Shire.

The second Doorway of No Return, about three-quarters into the film or novel, guarantees the final showdown.  Gary Cooper watches the last train pull out of town, and it’s almost noon.  When he and Trinity rescue Morpheus, Neo really believes, for the first time, that he is “The One.”  In True Grit, Maddie sees the man who shot her father at the river.  He does not notice her.  She could slip away, but once she draws her pistol and orders him to surrender, the final battle is underway.

As I said in my previous post, I find a lot of useful suggestions in James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, including the clearest discussion I know of the Three Act Structure.  Still, thanks to Google, you don’t need a book to gather a lot of good information, including suggestions that the Three Act Structure is passe, an impediment, or a device for mere genre-writers.   We can use it or not but it seems to me that any writer can benefit from understanding the concept.

Throughlines in Novels and Screenplays

I have posted before on how much I learn from screenwriters.  I would even argue that film has become the groundbreaking medium in the world of storytelling.  Yesterday, for instance, I received a newsletter on writing for children with a front page article entitled, “E-Books Go Hollywood:  Readers Are Ready for Books to Sing & Dance.”

Regardless, I would not want to try to write a novel these days without a grasp of such screenwriting basics as “High Concept,” and “Three Act Structure.”  Another key term from stage and film is, “Throughline.”  Unfortunately, many definitions of the phrase are overly simplistic, like this from dictionary.com:  “a theme or idea that runs from the beginning to the end of a book, film, etc.”

A more useful description is given on Wikipedia, which traces the word back to Constantin Stanislavski, the great proponent of method acting, who:  “believed actors should not only understand what their character was doing, or trying to do…in any given unit, but should also strive to understand the through line which linked these objectives together and thus pushed the character forward through the narrative.”

Even this definition is rather abstract, and we need some examples.  The clearest discussion of Throughlines I know was written by Nancy Lamb in The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (2001). The section of the book dealing with Throughlines is reprinted in the February, 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, which brought the subject to mind.

The Throughline, says Lamb, is “the central plot point that propels the hero from beginning to end, from one scene to the next, from one act to the next.” A key point she makes is the frequent breakdown of the initial, conscious motivation of the protagonist near the middle of the story:  “What he wants is denied him,either by his choice or by the force of outside circumstances.  The breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation he was originally unaware of.” (emphasis added).

Lamb cites the classic Bridge to Terabithia as an example.  Jess Aarons wants to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade.  This motivation breaks down when he meets Leslie Burke, the new girl in school, who is a tomboy and a faster runner then he is.  The two become best friends and build a world of imagination together, and the Troughline deepens.  Not a single minded goal, but “Jess’ multi-faceted desire for self-realization becomes the primary Throughline that runs through the story.”

A third Throughline becomes central when Leslie dies in a tragic accident:  “Jess must learn to cope with his grief and believe in himself.  Until that point, he was convinced he needed Leslie to ‘make the magic.’  Now Jess is alone and must learn to call upon his own creative spirit without the help of his friend.”

Lamb uses the analogy of a train to to demonstrate that the Throughline may “change tracks,” but it is always there, and always moving toward the destination.  It lends force and cohesion to a story, and ties together what might otherwise be  a series of disparate episodes.

“From beginning to end, the Throughline is a constant in your story.  You can have any number of other things happen in the book.  But the matter of what drives the hero and compels him to act is never in question because the Throughline is there to maintain your readers’ attentions and pull them through the story.”

Lamb calls the Throughline the “spine” of a story, a good analogy, because the spine of people and animals is hidden.  As long as everything is working, we don’t give it much thought.  It is instructive to try to identify the Throughline in your favorite tales.

In Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo agrees to carry the Ring of Power to Rivendell, a task which is heroic enough; it almost costs him his life, but that is just the beginning.  Sam is ready to return to the Shire, but Frodo cannot.  Grasping the danger to Middle Earth, he reluctantly says, “I will carry the ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way.”  It is like the ground opening under the hobbit’s feet, dropping him into a far more dangerous world.

The initial Throughline in The Da Vinci Code is Robert Langdon’s need to prove himself innocent of a murder he did not commit.  The simple imperative to survive is gradually eclipsed by his desire uncover a hidden mystery that is central to western culture and religion.

The Throughline is one of those elements it is fun to watch for in books and movies – fun and valuable, for it is a tool that can only make our own writing stronger.

Between a Plot and a Hard place

Okay, okay, so I should be pun-ished for a title like that.  This post is really about finding one’s own right brain/left brain balance in plotting a novel, but I couldn’t work that into a catchy phrase.

The topic was suggested by an article on my friend, Rosi Hollenbeck’s blog, The WriteStuff,  http://rosihollinbeckthewritestuff.blogspot.com/2011/03/thinking-about-writing-or-writing-about.html.  Like all of Rosi’s posts, there is a lot to think about, but this one happens to feature a very flattering account of yours truly.  She talks about another writing friend, the inspiration she finds in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and then she describes her own process of weaving a story.

Of my approach, she says:  “What amazes me is the discipline he brings to his writing. He works very hard at learning his craft and even writes synopses before he writes the books. I suspect he even outlines. He always knows where he’s going.” (I wish!)

Of her own method, Rosi says:  “I don’t even feel as if I’m in charge. I sit down with an inkling of an idea and characters walk into my head, fully formed and usually named, and tell me their stories.”

At this time, I am re-imagining my villain and his machinations, which makes it interesting to review some tactics I have used in the past and where they lie between the poles of pre-planning and letting things happen.

Rosi is wrong about one thing:  I am constitutionally incapable of outlining.  Several times over the years I came up with ideas for novels.  Unfortunately, I thought you had to start with an outline, and the inspirations never survived the attempt.  My breakthrough came during my years with the Sacramento Storytellers Guild when I learned that accomplished storytellers do not memorize their tales, but see the story unfold in the mind’s eye and describe the the inner drama.  I discovered this is my natural way of writing too – describing the inner visions with written rather than spoken words.

The advantage of such an approach is the excitement of the unknown and the adventure of discovery, of sitting down and wondering, “What’s going to happen today?”  The downside is incoherent plots.  After 2+ years, I abandoned my first novel as a wonderful learning experience, but one that could not be rescued.  Clearly, what I had learned in the visual arts applies to writing too – the visions of raw imagination must be carefully shaped if I want them to have meaning to anyone else but me.

I set about studying plot and structure, and now my process is something like this:

1)  Write the first chapter and a one line synopsis.  While studying screenwriting, I learned that “high-concept” movies – the only ones that get made these days – can be summarized in one sentence.  I would go so far as to say that until I can do that, I don’t have a story to tell.  Here’s the tagline for Karyn’s Magic:

An apprentice magician must stop a supernatural killer she unwittingly releases from his prison between the worlds.

2) Write a one paragraph synopsis (3-5 sentences).  I do this while writing maybe the first three chapters.  This is also a tactic I picked up from a screenwriter who was telling how she pitches her concept to a producer:  setup – conflict – resolution.

3)  Write a one page synopsis.  I’m going to have to do this anyway, and since a one page synopsis will reveal any glaring plot flaws, I might as well do it when I’m 30-40 pages in rather than 200.  The one page synopsis functions like a map that changes as the story landscape changes, and often the two play together nicely.

4)  The final tool I’ve come to rely on is a scene summary, an idea I got from Syd Field’s excellent book, Screenplay.  As described in an earlier post, a scene summary is a line or two on a 3×5 card that triggers a kind of mental storyboard image of what is going to happen.  Field’s suggest 52, 3×5 cards for a movie, a number he tried because a friend pointed out there are 52 cards on a deck, and which he continues to use because it works:  13 scenes in Act I, 26 scenes in Act II, 13 scenes in Act III.  Here are the two scenes that comprise the first chapter of Karyn’s Magic:

  1. When Karyn Robinson is twelve, her mother dies in a tragic accident, leaving her and her sister Emily, destitute.  (Inciting Incident – sets story in motion).
  2. Kari, proud of her half-fairy ancestry is fascinated by magic, and seeks a prosperity spell from a gypsy.  Despite her sister’s skepticism, Kari follows the gypsy’s instructions.


Letting things happen and planning them out – both are valuable tools, and there’s a time and place for each, but neither is really up to my current task, re-visioning my villain.  He’s already been through several iterations – you could say he exists in several parallel universes.  I don’t need to write more universes or organize the ones I’ve got;  what I need is answers to questions I don’t yet know how to ask.

I need something more powerful than any bag of tricks, something for which there aren’t any rules.  I need a skill I had in spades when I was a kid, but which has been buried by decades of “practical matters.”  I need to drop my sophistication and get to the world of Let’s Pretend.

I guess its a little like Narnia – being grown-up keeps you out, and the entrance is seldom in the same place twice.  Meanwhile two of the dogs are fussing at me, as if they think I’ve been at the computer too long, and they are right.  They want to pretend they are wolves, and I think it’s time I helped them.  The dogs don’t think my concerns are all that urgent, and maybe they’re right.  Besides, animals know how to open the gates of other worlds.

The Golden Raspberry Awards

I enjoyed the Academy Awards on Sunday night. The nominations and the winners made sense.  On Monday morning, however, I read the rather sad story of a once-celebrated director’s fall from grace.

The night before the Oscars, the Golden Raspberry Foundation announced its Razzie awards for the “worst of” filmmaking in 2010.  Making a pretty complete sweep was M. Night Shyamalan, who was singled out as worst director of the worst movie, The Last Airbender, based on the worst screenplay, which he wrote.

Shyamalan wowed audiences and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director in 1999,  for The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist who, in the course of the movie, discovers he was murdered.  Willis plays opposite Haley Joel Osment, the boy who famously says, “I see dead people.”  The following year, Shyamalan worked with Willis again, and with Samuel L. Jackson, to make Unbreakable, which also received positive reviews.

The director’s career has gone downhill from there, both in terms of critical reviews, and in my own reaction to the two other movies of his I have seen.  What went wrong?

The next Shyamalan movie I saw, The Village, 2004, begins with an engaging premise:  the people in an isolated 19th century village live in fear of a race of beasts that roam the surrounding forest.  After a child dies, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) asks the village elders for permission to pass through the forest to “the towns” for medical supplies, but his request is denied.  The beasts paint the doors of village cabins with blood as a threat and warning after Lucius makes a short foray into the forest.

The beautiful Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), blind daughter of the chief elder, becomes engaged to Lucius.  When he is stabbed by a rival, the prognosis is dire:  Lucius will die without medicine.  Ivy begs her father, Edward Walker (John Hurt), to allow her to go to the towns.  He agrees, against the wishes of the other elders.  Before she leaves, he reveals a secret:  the monsters do not exist.  They are a fabrication created by the elders to frighten children so they will not enter the forest.  Yet when Ivy ventures into the woods alone, a beast attacks her.

Ivy Walker and monster in The Village

So far so good. We are well into the movie and gripping our seats, but then, Shyamalan’s penchant for twists runs amok. Ivy manages to escape the beast, who turns out to be the boy who had stabbed Lucas, wearing a monster suit.  Ivy comes to a concrete wall, finds a handy ladder nearby, climbs up and over and winds up at the edge of a highway where a ranger in an SUV picks her up, looks at the list of needed medicine her father had written out, gets it for her (they have a bit of trouble), then helps her back over the wall with a warning to be careful.

We learn that the village elders are actually refugees from the culture of violence in America, who bet their lives and livelihoods on the grand experiment of trying to raise a peaceful generation in a peaceful agrarian culture.

You can check out the theme and logic behind the events at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Village_(2004_film), but from my perspective, these elements were buried in a flawed story, one that would never ever, ever, ever, ever – as in, no way – have gotten past the the two writing critique groups I sit with.  In other words, not even the least experienced among us would get away with the plot flaws that pepper Shyamalan’s screenplay.

That, I believe, is the key to the disappointing trend of this director’s movies.  He tries to do it all – write the screenplay and direct the movie, and his early success must have isolated him from, or deafened him to, the collaborative voices that could have asked questions that should have been posed before the first scene was shot.

Questions like why Ivy’s father, a seemingly decent and caring man, would let his blind daughter brave the woods and the modern world alone?  And if simple antibiotics could save his future son-in-law, the town golden boy, why wouldn’t he just go out and get some.  And no matter how large his personal fortunre, (see the wikipedia page), who on earth is going to believe he could have bought secrecy for an entire village?  We’re supposed to believe that Homeland Security hasn’t studied the satellite photos in a post 9/11 world?

Contemplating this set of Razzies, I was struck with a deep appreciation for the members of my critique groups and all of their comments – those that seem pertinent and those that don’t.  They help keep me honest.  These are not the “discouraging words” I mentioned in my previous post.

Discouraging words sound like this:  You can’t.

Good criticism from people who value each other’s efforts sounds very different:  You can, and here are some ideas on how to proceed.

And The Winner Is: Some Excellent Oscar-Related Resources

Here are some very neat Academy Award links for writers, thanks to the folks at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, http://www.writingclasses.com/mailing.php?id=2008.  There are hoopla links to articles in Variety and the New York Times, links on books compiling the history (and “secret history”) of the Academy Awards, as well as info on Gotham’s online courses in screenwriting and writing for TV.  (Note:  I have not taken any of their courses so I cannot comment on them one way or another).

What I appreciated most is the list of Academy Award winning screenplays from 1928 to the present.  Quite a few have links to PDF files you can click on and study:  http://www.simplyscripts.com/oscar_winners.html.  Those who have followed this blog know I am a huge fan of screen-writing, and though I do not (yet) aspire to do it, I can think of few better places to study plot structure.

Speaking of which, I happened on a great quote on the difference between story and plot from E.M. Forster’s, Aspects of the Novel:

A story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died and the queen died of grief” is a plot.

I’ll be out of town for much of Sunday, but I hope to make it back in time for the awards.  This year in particular, I’m interested in some of the movies, writers and actors.

Of High-Concepts and Strange Attractors

I get a lot from reading and listening to screenwriters.  Today, while skimming some of the links posted below, I happened upon, Wordplay, the site for Scheherazade Productions, the company of screenwriters/producers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. http://www.wordplayer.com/

The heart of the site, according to the Intro page, is the Columns tab, a growing collection of essays where Elliott and Rossio share some of what they learned during the five years it took them to earn their first paycheck as screenwriters.  I was hooked at the start of Column 01, A Foot in the Door.

Somewhere in my own efforts, I stumbled upon a stunningly simple and vital concept: before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), I should be able to describe my story in a single sentence. Trial and error (error meaning tens of thousands of words of meandering prose) has made it an article of faith.

In his essay, Terry Rossio brings the concept alive in graphic detail as “The Warner Bros. Hallway Test:”

As a screenwriter, your choice of film premise is your calling card. Not your witty dialog, not your clever descriptions. Not your knowledge of structure and subplot and subtext.  The very first decision you make as a writer — ‘what is my film about?’ — will define your creative instincts in the eyes of the industry.

Rossio asks us to imagine a busy producer and director stopping by an office where a first reader is 40 pages into our screenplay. “What’s it about?” they ask.  What will the reader say?  What brief reply would catch and hold a director’s attention?

Once I heard a screenwriter try to describe, “High Concept,” which he claimed was a necessary ingredient for a story these days. Like most of the audience, I didn’t quite get what he was talking about. In Column 02, Rossio says that as a matter of fact, a story that can be summed up in a sentence is High Concept, but for him, that does not convey the special mojo that lifts a story above its peers. He “stole” a phrase from the mathematics of fractals: Strange Attractor.

I know this sounds a bit silly, but bear with me. Put ‘strange’ (meaning ‘unique’) and ‘attractor’ (from ‘attractive,’ meaning ‘compelling’) together and you get ‘strange attractor,’ or ‘something unique that is also compelling.’

Which would be just another, forgettable, “yeah, yeah,” bit of advice, if the author didn’t go on to give some examples:

“A group of ex-psychic investigators start a commercial ghost extermination business in New York City.”

“A defense attorney falls in love with her client. As the trial progresses, she doesn’t know if she’s sleeping with an innocent man, or a murderer.”

It begins to make sense. What is unique is not ghost stories, or love stories, or murder mysteries, per se, but the unexpected or quirky slants that were central to these movies. I remember coming across this “high concept” description of The DaVinci Code online some time ago – so simple yet so forceful I remember it without even trying:  A late night murder in the Louve leads to the discovery of a secret the Vatican has tried to suppress for two-thousand years.”

When he starts to outline specific qualities these strange attractor stories seem to share, Rossio begins with this image:

It’s as if thousands of people in Hollywood are combing the beach for that next great film idea, magnifying glasses out, checking every facet on every tiny grain of sand they come across. And then somebody points at a big, beautiful conch shell laying right out in the bright sun and says, “Hey, let’s make that!” You look at that big glorious pink and white crustacean and can’t believe you missed it.

If there were a magic formula, it wouldn’t be magic for very long. There are, however, some fifty essays on this site that promise to offer a lot of ideas and food for contemplation about the special qualities that can make a story come alive.

A Novel Planning Method

There seem to be two general approaches to plotting a novel. When I was younger, my efforts consistently ran aground because I tried to fit myself into the outlining and pre-planning camp.

When I first learned to trust imagination and revel in the lets-see-what-happens-next process, I finished a 90,000 word draft in seven months of evenings and weekends. The good news is, I’d found my natural way of working – the bad news is it took me seven months to see the gaping plot flaws an outliner could have flushed out in a couple of weeks.

I undertook a study of plot and learned about the three act structure, the key plotpoints, and various other fundamental concepts.  What I still didn’t have was a method of planning that didn’t inhibit imagination, the way an armature supports a ceramic sculpture but doesn’t inhibit expression.

I found something very useful online, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method,” a literary brainstorming practice  that takes its name from the simple to complex process of designing a snowflake fractal:


Ingermanson begins by suggesting a one-sentence synopsis of the entire story – something that may seem impossible at first, but which I now believe is absolutely necessary.  The process clicked into place for me when I saw, on another web site, the following example offered for  The DaVinci Code: A late night murder in the Louvre leads to the discovery of a secret the Vatican has tried to suppress for 2000 years. Very high-level like that.

Ingermanson then suggests growing this story summary to a paragraph and then a page, in the spirit of discovering what the story is really about.  If the villain isn’t bad enough or is too easily defeated, it’s worth knowing upfront rather than thousands of words later.

Once I have gone as far as I wish with the Snowflake Method, I’ve got a decent high level map of plot and perhaps my protagonist and villain, but for me, something is still missing – how do I find out what’s going to happen next?  How do I dream up new complications, discover and weigh alternative endings, without writing those thousands of practice words?

I’ve recently begun to explore something I saw a decade ago, the “storyboards” Peter Jackson and his team developed to map the scenes of The Lord of the Rings. This was part of the “making of” section of the DVD’s. I dug them out and watched again after recently reading Syd Fields’ excellent, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which recommends using 3×5 cards to work out plot.


I find that either a quick sketch or a few words can sum up a scene in a graphic manner that appeals to imagination. I can carry a few cards in a shirt pocket and glance at them over a cup of coffee or mull them over while driving home.

Two Towers Storyboard

They do not need to be nearly this detailed, because we are not planning camera angles.  This could be summed up as:

After witnessing Frodo confront the Nazgul, Faramir releases Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to pursue their mission to Mordor, or simply, After Nazgul, Faramir lets them go.

I find that if I let the images play around in the background of my mind long enough, the next step will come, and often surprise me.  I fully expect this process to evolve and change, but for now, this is a huge step forward.