Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.

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Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.

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Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.

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Books and Movies

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Your favorite book now a major motion picture.

I have a love/hate relationship with the concept of turning books into movies. When one of my favorite books is slated to become a movie, I tend to be excited and antsy. I search the cast list for any resemblance to the people I love. I watch trailers looking for that moment that was personally pivotal to me in the book. I read articles to discern the director’s depth of understanding of his material. When Peter Jackson first announced plans to make Lord of the Rings, I obsessed to a degree that was beyond fan girl. Way beyond fan girl. Why? Because Lord of the Rings is my favorite, not-the-Bible book of all time. Favorite.

But this isn’t an article about Lord of the Rings. This is an observation about translating books into movies, and how movies have changed our writing. I want to explore this idea by comparing The Hobbit, Hunger Games, and Ender’s Game. I’ve read and enjoyed all three books and all three movies. I hope they make an interesting comparison study.

Tolkien penned The Hobbit long before fantasy-type books became movies every summer. I can’t imagine Tolkien IMDB-ing actors to see if Martin Freeman would make a good Bilbo. When Card wrote Ender’s Game having a book turned into a movie was more likely, but still a shot in the dark. Then we come to The Hunger Games. It was almost a guarantee that if the book had any success, it would be made into a movie. Suzanne Collins worked in the TV business, writing shows for children. I can’t imagine her writing The Hunger Games without a movie in the back of her mind. How do I know that? Because I do the same thing. I grew up with movies and I can’t help but think of them when I write.

We have one book with no thoughts for a movie, one with a little thought, and one heavily influenced.

And their movies? (Please remember this is just my opinion.)

The Hunger Games was a great movie that followed the book closely adjusting pacing as needed for a film. My husband, who isn’t a fiction reader, really loved it.

Ender’s Game followed the book closely, as far as I can remember, but with more concern for the book’s fans than movie goers. My husband found it boring and a bit confusing. I didn’t feel as into the movie as I was the book. It came across as choppy, and poorly paced. I should note that it’s been many years since I read the book.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYThe Hobbit was so different from the book. In fact, I hated the movie when I first saw it. Right after watching it, my husband and I dove into the book and found the movie to be surprisingly accurate, all things considered. Of the three, this was the only one that my husband had read both the book and seen the movie.

I think it would have been impossible for Peter Jackson to follow the Hobbit as it was written. The barrel scene? Twelve dwarves floating down a river in closed barrels as river elves pushed them along: worked in the book, boring on the screen. In a book, the author can give the reader a brief sentence saying the town chief is gross and greedy. A reader has no problem accepting that a moving on. In a movie, you have to show it and establish it. It can’t be tacked on somewhere.

In fact, as I refreshed my view of the Hobbit, I became more pleased at what Peter Jackson preserved that he could have left out. There are writing tools you can manipulate in a book that you just can’t spring on people in a movie. The odd part is that even when I acknowledge the good things Peter Jackson did, I still don’t really like the Desolation of Smug taken in the broader context of all the movies. It’s pacing seems really off.

enders_game_2013_movie-wideIn Ender’s Game, I think they stuck so close to the book that that became more of a concern than making a good movie. If they focused on making a good movie, I think it would have been better. Instead, it felt confusing and emotionally unrelatable unless you’d read the book.

Hunger Games had no problem going from book to screen. The book just adds and develops the characters a bit more, but you get a good sense of the story and characters from the movie.

Has the silver screen changed how we write? Has it changed how we write scenes? Probably. I think this may be why the concept of Showing instead of Telling has gained such ground. If you read older work, they do an extensive amount of telling prior to showing. Older books also spend less time explaining battles, or fight scenes, if they even have them. Older works don’t seem as focused on character descriptions, partially, maybe, because they weren’t thinking about the actor who might be selected to play them.

The-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-soundtrack-608x608Is this bad? No, not necessarily. I enjoy a book with a lot of showing instead of telling. I enjoy books with masterful battle scenes. But, I also think it opens the door to a lot of bad writing. (This is not the only day and age with bad writing, but it does seem easier to find than it used to be.) I think writers can focus too much on character description instead of just character. I can’t stand a novel that gives me a character’s measurements as if that is going to help me picture him better in my mind. I want to get to know this person, not that he’s 6′ 4″. Some people write scenes totally based on what they’ve seen in movies. Maybe they should just be a screen writer, instead of a novelist. I’ve had to tell new writers that they can’t write slo-mo action scenes. It doesn’t work when you’re reading. Matrix styled fighting and good cop/bad cop only work if you’re a really great writer. The rest of us just need to do more research until we find something based in reality that we can use.

I’m a product of my time. I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend I live in a different time…unless I’m writing a period piece…which I’m not. I always have a ‘cast’ file. It’s filled with pictures of actors that I have in mind for the characters. Some of the actors aren’t alive anymore because I’m looking for a match to my imagination, not hoping to submit it to Hollywood. I don’t anticipate my books every becoming movies, thought I’ve daydreamed about it. Generally it ends up with me shuddering cause I don’t really like Hollywood that much and don’t want to get caught up in that world in any way, shape, or form. Besides, they wouldn’t like me. I’m too conservative, too Christian. It wouldn’t happen.

All that to say, yes, movies affect how we write. We don’t live in bubbles. We probably all write as if we were watching a film and just reporting on what we were seeing. I even refer to different parts in my book as scenes, as if I was directing a film. But, writing is so much richer and deeper than a movie. Writing let’s you escape to a whole new world in a way movies never can. You get to be in a new place and in a new person. Through the journey, you often learn more about yourself than you ever could watching a movie. Movies are wonderful, but books are often better. Don’t stop writing. Enjoy the gifts of the silver screen, but don’t rely on them.