Dismembered Stories and Their Amputated Sentences

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As a writer, I have this recurring problem.  Film school education and the etiquette of screenwriting has a way of tarnishing my short stories, blog posts, and all of my writing in general.

In a screenplay, it is rude to overly describe sets, locations, characters, and really just about everything.  Every excessive adjective punched onto the page steps on someone’s toes.  Leave the wallpaper to the set designer.  Don’t back the casting department into a corner by fussing over the characters’ appearances.  Only list props necessary to the plot and let the professionals fill in the rest.

When you apply this way of thinking and the formatting of screenplays to narrative writing, you end up with front heavy information dumps followed by dialogue between vague, faceless characters in an unfurnished room somewhere sometime.  This was my initial problem with narrative writing:  a hesitance to describe anything other than the action (but only just a little bit because you don’t want to step on the director’s toes or stifle the actors’ performances).

To remedy this issue, I’ve wildly overcompensated.  My rough drafts tend to describe every little thing with as many pretty words and phrases as I can conjure, killing all plot momentum along the way.

Needless to say, revision for me is a matter of carving it all up.  For every word I add, I delete about ten.

Below are some words that I really liked, but deleted nonetheless.  I won’t provide you with any context for these, because it’s probably more fun that way!

From Hellfire Chicken Wings:

“The bulging gut that hangs over top of the husband/father’s jeans and his stained work shirt are unseemly sights easily found topside, but the two stunted, crooked horns that protrude from his forehead, the cellulite-ridden tail coming to an arrow point at the end – those are unique to this particular location of Fat Mike’s Bar and Grill.

This customer’s misfortunate daughters have equally spaced red bumps in the corners of their own foreheads that look like mountainous pimples – the awkwardness of adolescence is not unique to the mortal world.  Their crooked teeth are reined into line by grizzly-looking metal wires and brackets from a horror movie.  They look roughly the same age, Irish twins maybe, but one appears just enough older for it to be noticeable.  The younger has tangled brown hair that looks so grungy that Kristen thinks the girl might actually be a blonde with inordinately poor hygiene.  The older has dark black hair, too dark, a bad dye job, with reddish blonde roots showing for about an inch and a half.

The matriarch of the family is enormous.  Rolls of fat cascade down her wide frame, peaking at her hips – which must measure nearly three feet across.  Her double chin has its own double chin.  Her facial muscles can’t hold taut the weight of her cheeks and they sag in jowls.  She is wearing light makeup on her face, which is an inhuman fire engine red, peppered with enough whiskers to make Kristen wonder whether a pointy black beard lurks within the folds of flesh hanging from the woman’s chin.  Her eyes, “the window to the soul,” are vacant like a cow’s, hinting at the vacuum of intelligent thought within her skull.  Her horns might be the most pronounced of the entire brood, though it is impossible to tell given the ways that facial fat has folded around them.

Regardless of whether or not the customers sitting in Kristen’s section are poorly-bred and unattractive or brilliantly handsome and brimming with seductive facial expressions, she sees their horns and pointy beards and arrow-ended tails all the same.

She can’t remember exactly when she began seeing people this way, whether it was a week, a month, or a year ago.  These details just so integrated themselves into her perspective so well that she assumed that they were there the whole time and that she had never overlooked them.”

From Trail:

“Though I did not belong, the forest adopted me.  It became a part of me, and I, a part of it.”

From This is Where…:

“My head bobbing just above the water for days, weeks, months.”

From Last Will and Testament:

“But that wasn’t true.  The house was Wilbur – run down and neglected on the outside, untarnished and full of potential on the inside.  Or at least that must have been the way that George had seen it.”

From Decomposing on Your Doorstep:

“It could be the setting of a fairy tale.  Unnaturally lush green grass carpets an unused plot of farm land roughly fenced in and forgotten, complete with rusting tractors and farming equipment.”

“Born of inspiration greater than anything that ever fueled my painting, my ploy for notoriety will finally show the world my life’s work.”

From Antisocial Networking:

“The boredom went up in flames, kindling for Jake’s newfound fascination with strangers.  Soon he was reading their 140-character opinions and insights on Twitter, inspecting the photographic evidence of their alien lives on Instagram, even tracking their professional developments on LinkedIn.”

“All of those insignificant, boring things that bore people can take on a whole new light simply by viewing them from a different perspective.”

Don’t worry, I will share with you the stories from which these words were amputated sometime, just not today!

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Memorable Classes: Script Analysis

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Peg was a strange bird and she taught a variety of somewhat-dry classes with all of the flair and drama that you would expect of someone with her stage acting credentials.

If the word pairing “Script Analysis” doesn’t conjure boredom for you, let me elaborate.  The class covered three units, three schools of thought on storytelling.

The first followed Aristotle’s Poetics, a breezy read that emphasized the importance of Plot (yes even above Character).  It was supposedly the first book about storytelling ever written, though being the loquacious type that he was, I’m sure Aristotle opted to go around talking about his ideas rather than shutting his trap long enough to jot them down himself so there was probably an unpaid intern that deserved a little bit of credit too.

The second unit delved into Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing.  It was a dusty old book that you can buy for a nickel on Amazon.  Written in the mid 1940s, Egri’s book focused primarily on stage plays as his source work.  Regardless of the minor irrelevances for my film education that this bred, his notion of character-driven storytelling was revolutionary at the time and is still what we pretend to be aiming for with our screenplays and novels to this day.  Granted sometimes as writers we have to indulge a little bit and make the T-Rex inexplicably kill the Velociraptors.  Sure it’s Deus Ex Machina, but “Forget it Jake, it’s dinosaurs.”  <- Sorry, but we read the script for Chinatown in this class too.

The third unit was based on a blustery tome written by a pretentious windbag:  Story by Robert “Deuce Muffin” McKee.  That’s not his real middle name.  Well it might be, but I doubt it.  By the way, a “Deuce Muffin” is a muffin that is poop.  It’s probably not a real thing.  I might have made it up just now.

If you’ve seen the brilliant film, Adaptation, then you know Bob McKee as the man that killed that movie’s extremely engaging voiceover.  His work was very film-centric, and while it was good and useful, his tone was haughty and he liked to pretend that all of his rules and tips and guidelines were laws of physics that couldn’t possibly be defied by mere mortals such as you and me.

The spinal cord of the class was a series of criticisms that we had to write about a specific script that we chose at the beginning of the semester.  I chose 25th Hour, by David Benioff (currently of Game of Thrones fame, but this was long before that).  It had been produced and directed by Spike Lee, one of my favorites at the time.  The story chronicles the missteps of Monty Brogan as he wraps up his affairs in his final 24 hours of freedom before reporting to jail for an enormous drug sentence.  The script is powerful, the film beautiful, the performances stunning (Edward Norton playing Monty, Rosario Dawson as his wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his dweeby teacher pal and Barry Pepper as his brash stockbroker friend).  Let’s not get sidetracked here – unless you need to step away from the computer to go watch this movie.

This was one of three classes where I began to notice certain familiar faces and made friends accordingly.  Johnny (of Evil Beer fame) chose either Donnie Darko or Edward Scissorhands.  I don’t remember which, only that I was insanely jealous because those are two of my absolute favorite movies of all time ever.

Elle (of the doomed imploding friendship) chose My Own Private Idaho – a film so masturbatory that anyone other than Gus Van Sant claiming to have enjoyed it is either:  A.  A Liar  B.  Gus Van Sant in disguise.  I’m sure there is a great deal of meaning in the flick, but to this day my friends and I only mock a handful of scenes in this bizarre tale of male prostitutes starring River Phoenix and Keanu “I Know Kung Fu” Reeves.  The point is this:  Elle wasn’t very smart, so she should have picked something a little more straight forward like Ice Age 2 or something.

Forcibly trumping the relevance of all of our academic endeavors as they pertained to this class was Midnight Cowboy.  Now I know what you’re thinking, “Brantley, that guy has a name.  Surely his parents didn’t name him ‘Midnight Cowboy.’  That can’t possibly be on his birth certificate.”  And you may be right about that, but I’m telling the story and I haven’t given you enough information to produce documents to prove that this isn’t his name, or even that he was born in the United States as opposed to say, Kenya.

Well, Midnight Cowboy was writing his papers on, you guessed it, Midnight Cowboy.  (Trivia Aside – Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards).  He sometimes had a little bit to contribute to the weekly class discussion, but most of the time he had everything to contribute to the weekly class discussion.  Don’t get me wrong.  He chose a rich film to write essays about, but I wasn’t being graded on his essays so listening to his oppressive hogging of one of my favorite professors got old.  Quick.

Anyways, I managed to squeak out an A in the class after rebounding from a C on my first for-real college paper.  Apparently Aristotle and I didn’t get along.

But the highlight of the class was Peg and her grand sense of characters and symbolism and metaphor and freaking everything in life.  Yes, even that model plane advertising the aviation museum where her husband worked.  It was grand too!  She was like Sally Bowles as played by Liza Minelli, only she didn’t provoke a bubbling rage within you every time she opened her mouth.

Years later I would watch Peg go HAM as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the most microscopic black box theater in the world.  Seriously, this thing was like those Mighty Max and Polly Pocket play sets with the little figurines that you always lost immediately.