Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Breaking Storytelling Rules

I was going to hijack Eileen's topic and talk about a few movies I saw this year that weren't so much movies as acting exercises. And failures as actual stories in my opinion. (Hint: the movies star Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. Don't get me wrong, I thought the performances were great in these movies--some impressive acting--but the stories... not so much.)

But I thought of something else I wanted to talk about before the Oscars.

Although only half of the post is about a movie. The other half is about a book I'm reading right now. And these two stories--one a book, one a movie--both break a lot of storytelling conventions/rules. For me, breaking the rules worked in the movie but not in the book. And in this case I'll bet the book is actually more popular than the movie, although I don't have any stats to back that up.

The book I'm not going to name... but the movie is Monsieur Lazhar, a nominee for best foreign language film in the Oscars this year. (Go Canada! Although The Separation will win...)

The book that I'm not naming (and it's not that YA novel we were talking about a few weeks ago) works really well in the parts that work. Really well. And the author is a great and successful writer whom I admire, but some of the choices she made didn't work in my opinion and prove why the rules of good storytelling exist for a reason. What made me crazy, I think, is how many of the really heartbreaking moments in the story happen off screen.

Now that I'm finished, I'm starting to see how she might have made those choices in the first half of the book in order to set things up for later--to give more power to other heartbreaking moments--but... it didn't work. After a very exciting first chapter the book shifts forward several years, which in itself wouldn't be a problem, but then the next 150 pages are either: a) full of backstory explaining what happened during those seven years that we missed, b) scenes with either the hero or the heroine but never together, (where not much happens to forward the plot), and c) scenes in subplots with characters other than the hero and heroine who the reader doesn't really know much about. After that it really picks up, :) but for me it was too late. I'm not sure whether this was an experiment or intentional or whether the author couldn't think of another way to tell her story, or whether she really didn't think much about it at all... but whatever the case, I'm sad to say it didn't quite work for me.

On the other hand... The movie, Monsieur Lazhar breaks a few "rules" and I thought it was simply lovely.

Maybe it's about which rules you're breaking.

In Monsieur Lazhar, I'd say the broken rule is "escalate the drama" or "increase the complications or challenges your hero faces" or the old "put your character up a tree and throw rocks" rule. However you want to articulate that rule, there were several places during this film where the tension is really high and you think you know what's going to happen, because it's what would happen in most commercial films or books... but then it doesn't go that way, but instead of something even worse happening, things turn out well and the tension releases. You'd think this would make for a boring story. But it works. I think because every time one of these tension points deflates, another secret or possible risk is revealed to make you worried for the characters for another reason.

In the end, it's a lovely sweet story that doesn't end sadly, but doesn't end with a tied up happy ending either.

The story is about an Algerian man who's claiming refuge status in Canada and gets a job teaching a grade 4 or 5 class, after their teacher commits suicide in their classroom and the Principal is pretty much desperate to fill the job. It's a fish out of water story, a kids healing after a trauma story, a man healing after a different trauma story, a man fighting to stay in Canada story, and ultimately just a really sweet story that made me proud to live in this country.

It's in French with subtitles, and if it shows up in a theater near you, I highly recommend it. The little blonde girl in the middle of the front row of this poster will break your freaking heart. So will the kid with the camera. And Monsieur Lazhar himself will melt it.


Eileen said...

I've made that same mistake in books, cutting away at a moment of high tension or having it happen off screen. I think it has do with a certain amount of squeamishness on my part. I did the opposite in Vanished in the Night (at least in the first draft) and totally creeped myself out.

Maureen McGowan said...

Good for you, Eileen. :)

Anonymous said...

I love when writers break rules successfully, but when it doesn't work, it can kill a book.
Interesting to hear more about this book and can't wait to see the movie.

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