Friday, April 20, 2007

The Story Editor Inside Me

Somerset Maugham wrote something to the effect that people read less fiction as they grow older, because the stories in fiction can only take certain predictable shapes, whereas real life (as represented in Maugham's example by history or biography) is essentially without limit.

I find that this is true in my case. I read less fiction now than I once did, because when I pick up a brand new novel, with a cover blurb saying something like (for example) "Best fantasy novel of the year!", and I find it's more or less the same novel that I read in 1973 except with 200 additional totally unnecessary pages, it makes me less inclined to read not only that novel, but any novel.

The fact is that I have it worse than almost all of you, because of the Story Editor Inside Me.

After thirty years of writing professionally, and doing professional critiques, and reading critically and with an eye toward technique and story values, I've got an internal story editor that just won't shut up.

I can't read bad fiction because it's, well, bad. And I can't read mediocre fiction because the Story Editor Inside Me is always editing, rewriting, adding scenes, rearranging scenes, replotting, adding character moments, deleting scenes, and otherwise trying to make the story better . . . which of course I can't really do, because the damn thing's already in print.

It takes a really good piece of fiction to stun the internal story editor and let me read simply for pleasure.

And sometimes even if it's really good, the Story Editor Inside Me keeps yammering away, and spoils it for me.

A case in point was tonight's Netflix movie, Stranger Than Fiction, in which Will Farrell plays an IRS accountant who comes to realize that he is in fact a fictional character, created by a brilliant if comically tormented Emma Thompson, an author who fully intends to kill him off at the end of the book. It becomes apparent that the book is in fact the author's masterpiece, and so it becomes Will Farrell's duty to give his death artistic meaning by dying just as Miss Thompson intends. (I mean, he's going to die sooner or later, right? So why not die in the way that provides satisfaction to the most people?)

It's quite a good movie. The cast is packed with heavy hitters--- Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Linda Hunt--- and the writing by Zach Helm is very fine.

But the Story Editor Inside Me wouldn't shut up. It wouldn't cease pointing out that Miss Thompson's novel was not in fact a masterpiece, but a total crock of shit.

Will Farrell's accountant had no life. He worked, he came home, he dined alone, he went to sleep. He counted the number of brush strokes as he cleaned his teeth, he counted the number of steps from his apartment to the bus stop. He had no girlfriend, no hobbies, and no friends outside of work.

Do you know what we call these people in real life?

We call them crazy.

We call them nuts.

We call them out of their freaking minds.

You could get a moving tragedy out of this character, but only by recognizing that the story is about the tragedy of autism or insanity or some other mental disorder.

But that's not what we got. The character's life was this empty for fictional reasons, because he had to come out of this living death and find love and a real life in time to be run over by a bus, so there could be irony.

Cheap irony.

I mean, this story sucks. I kept thinking that Emma Thompson wasn't having writer's block because she couldn't find the right tragic ending, she was having writer's block because she knew she was writing a really bad, untrue story and should dump the whole manuscript in the incinerator and start over.

Real people, even if they're IRS accountants, have real lives. Even if they're geeks. I know lots of real-life geeks, and they all have real-life hobbies. Trainspotting. Birdwatching. Playing SCA. Playing harpsichord in a chamber ensemble. Science fiction fandom. Traveling to towns in Southern California in alphabetical order, via routes that cross into no towns they've already visited, and then having lunch. I mean, their lives are full, get it?

So this is what the Story Editor Inside Me kept yelling as I was watching this perfectly fine movie.

(The Story Editor also pointed out that Emma Thompson could have had her tragic ending, and still saved Will Farrell's life, simply by changing the character's name before she wrote the last chapter.

(Okay, so maybe it wouldn't have worked, but it would have worked in my universe, and anyway it was still worth a try.

(Okay, so this is my geek thing, all right?)

So if you read as a fan--- if you can pick up a random book and read it for pure pleasure--- then count your lucky stars.

Because I can't. Or hardly ever, anyway.

10 Comments:

Blogger Foxessa said...

I liked Stranger Than Fiction a whole lot once the story began, which took about 10 -15 minutes. Well, really, when Maggie Gyllenhall gets on screen. I sort of think of Carl Denham's declaration in King Kong, "The picture has to have a girl."

I'm guessing the writer portrayed by Emma Thompson was intended to be one in the mode of a cross of Anita Brookner and Ruth Rendell.

What I loved about the film was the blatant calculation, undisguised from the viewer, in how it utilized so many of the most common genres to create the story and tension of the film itself. It was most clever little picture!

Love, C.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Janice said...

Real people, even if they're IRS accountants, have real lives. Even if they're geeks. I know lots of real-life geeks, and they all have real-life hobbies. Trainspotting. Birdwatching. Playing SCA. Playing harpsichord in a chamber ensemble. Science fiction fandom. Traveling to towns in Southern California in alphabetical order, via routes that cross into no towns they've already visited, and then having lunch. I mean, their lives are full, get it?

You are generalizing to "geek." But what about "boring"? Very few of us know really boring people because frankly, very few of us bother to hang around with boring people because they are, you know, boring. I'm fairly sure that there are indeed people out there who are living fairly sterile lives like this character: they don't work where they really meet people, they 're introverted so they don't go out by themselves or make a push to connect with people where they do meet them, and they don't have any real interests or at least haven't discovered them.

Aside from that, that's not the part that bother me about this movie. The part that bothered me was why his dying was the difference between it being an ok novel and a masterpiece. If it was so well written and conceived, then why couldn't it stand with a different ending? It was an interesting enough story for us to watch the character flowering as the movie story, so why would it not have been enough for a novel?

So if you read as a fan--- if you can pick up a random book and read it for pure pleasure--- then count your lucky stars.

I am the same way with films - Stephen really hates it when I have trouble at the movies with characters who don't act as the character who has been set up would act, or when there are situations that within the parameters of the movie world could or would not happen. Drives me crazy. Sometimes, like you, I wish the Logic Monster in my brain could shut off for fluff but no luck...

4:50 AM  
Anonymous Oz said...

Well that was synchronous. My tired brain can't do the time changes, but we were watching "Stranger Than Fiction" here on Friday night as well. I didn't have the same reaction though...no desire to critique the novel, just the screenplay.

It was a classic romantic comedy in which man-is-nothing-without-a-girl. The boring state of his life is overemphasized as it generally is in all romantic comedy. He is 'saved' by the quirky, artistic girl. My only disappointment was the Hollywood insistence on a 'happy' ending. I would have preferred that he died, which is not your romantic comedy ending, but would have given me a certain satisfaction in how the movie built to its conclusion.

By the way, life on the autistic spectrum (in this case what appears to be an attempt to describe mild Asperger's) is not tragic or a mental disorder, per se. It is different from what is considered 'normal,' whatever the hell that is.

The movie appeared to be describing an east coast lifestyle in which someone lives to work, as opposed to working to live. I have known many people who would be described as having neither hobbies nor a life outside of the office. Presumably they did/do something with their time, but work sucked the life out of them so it wasn't much. We had a joke in the world of the big accounting firms that the only person with less personality than an auditor (we were talking of CPAs, not IRS) was an actuary. Lo and behold, there is a joke in this movie that his girlfriend left him for one.

I was strongly reminded of "Accidental Tourist" (novel and movie) and "Joe vs. the Volcano" in the style of this screenplay. Movies where the character has no life before the girl appears.

The cast impressed me. This movie required performances that were understated, where expressions (or lack thereof) carried a scene. From Linda Hunt's insistence that he was schizophrenic to Hulce providing a hug to Emma's asking where they keep the people that are definitely going to die, I enjoyed them all.

Not a perfect movie, no. As you say, I can't resist thinking what could have been edited better in the cutting room or written better in the screenplay or acted better. But for a Friday night, it was as good as I had thought it would be.

5:49 AM  
Anonymous Pat Mathews said...

And off the subject of the movie and on the subject of the Inner Story Editor - I went to see "The Magic Flute" sung in English and semi-modern dress at UNM, done by young voices. Halfway into Act 2 I'm thinking the supposed Good Guy, Sarastro, is behaving as badly as his antagonist, the Queen of the Night, and with less justification. Of course, it's Grand Opera, but still!

You could seriously do this as an 18th Century Kramer vs Kramer and it would make more sense!

7:28 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

It was a classic romantic comedy in which man-is-nothing-without-a-girl.

This would seem to be one of those cases where the cliche is perfectly true. Without lovers, woman friends, and latterly my spouse, my life would certainly have been pretty dull and desperate.

You are generalizing to "geek." But what about "boring"?

Boring people fill their time in ways that I would find dull--- I'm sure I would find a bowling league as excruciatingly dull as a bowler would find my RPG group incomprehensible--- but I don't know that there are so many people around whose lives are utterly vacant.

Even the borderline Asperger's types I encounter seem to have lives full with computers, computer games, engaging in ferocious online flame wars, or some or all of the above.

For what it's worth, some of the dullest people I've encountered were marrieds-with-children. Between them, work and children had sucked the life out of them. They lived life entirely through their kids. Probably they'll get interesting again when the kids go to college.

I have known many people who would be described as having neither hobbies nor a life outside of the office.

Sounds like they chose to fill their lives with work. It's sad. If I could, I'd introduce them to Maggie Gyllenhaal.

3:24 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

One of the problems with people in movies is that they're not SF people. By which I mean, they don't apply enough skiffy-imagination to their problems, even when the problems themselves are skiffy in nature.

It would have been useful, for example, to find out whether Emma Thompson had created Will Ferrell, or merely discovered him.

If Ferrell can be shown to have an independent existence outside of Miss Thompson's creation, then he exists at least as much as the rest of us do, and she has merely discovered him in some way, and she has no right to bump him off.

Whereas if Ferrell can be shown to have had no existence before Miss Thompson began her book, then he is as much a construct as any other fictional character, and she can kill him off with a clear(er) conscience.

But characters outside of SF and fantasy always show remarkably little curiosity about these sorts of issues. Whereas if I found myself living in a fantasy, I would spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the rules of my fantasy universe are, so that I could somehow hack them to my advantage.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well...yeah! Of course the story sucked. That was the whole idea! The tragic irony of the film is Will Ferrel (or, at least, Will Ferrel's character) trying to give some dramatic meaning to his sacrifice to the cliche at the end of a hackneyed story.

dubjay: Compleat Magician much? Or maybe Erfworld.

2:10 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Gurps. Though mostly we make it up as we go along.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Janice said...

Boring people fill their time in ways that I would find dull--- I'm sure I would find a bowling league as excruciatingly dull as a bowler would find my RPG group incomprehensible--- but I don't know that there are so many people around whose lives are utterly vacant.

Even the borderline Asperger's types I encounter seem to have lives full with computers, computer games, engaging in ferocious online flame wars, or some or all of the above.


Once again, you're talking about people you know or hang around with. Not to impugn people in any of the following professions but for the sake of argument, do you know a lot of people who pump gas for a living, or waitress at Denny's, or collect tolls at a toll booth? Would you have any idea of what they do in their lives outside work?

I'm not saying that most people don't have some interests even if those interests might not seem interesting to me. But I do think there are people out there with lives equally as sterile as the one the Will Ferrell character leads in the beginning of the film.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Taylor said...

For me, this film was moderately entertaining up until the end at which point it nose-dived into the annals of my never-to-see-again movie list.

I saw it as basically a typical romantic comedy wrapped up in cheap paper-thin tricks to try and get the audience to feel something.

The first problem for me was the characters. Nothing about Ferrell struck me as genuinely tragic because his character wasn't genuine. He was almost entirely one dimensional. Like Walter said, people have real lives - including pump jockies and waitresses - and by eliminating (or changing?) that aspect of Ferrell's character it made him unbelievable. His actual progression was from a cardboard cutout to something approximating real. Next, you knew Maggie Gyllenhall's character would end up being more than a tax-evading hippy before she even entered the screen. She had to be in order to fit the trope as your larger than life heroine. You knew as soon as she mentioned school that she was going to be the brilliant, albeit at one time misguided scholar who had at last found her place in universe. And lastly, Emma Thompson as the excessively, neurotic author and Robert Deniro as the detatched, brilliant professor. Both stereotyped characters that could have been lifted from the pages of any escapist story.

Which brings me to the end. Okay, so why did he have to die? And saving a little girl ... come on, all we needed was the whining puppy and we would have had the trifecta of tear jerker moments. The fact he didn't die was largely irrelevant because the author put that out there claiming his death was important when in fact it turned out not to be.

Anyway, that's just my opinion. Other people loved the movie and I'm sure they will disagree completely with my assessment. That's the beauty of the internet.

4:36 PM  

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