Story Lessons from Thanksgiving Movies

Umm… Spoiler Warning. Just sayin.

Sara and I have (for the most part) gone without TV this month. We decided that there were things we wanted to get accomplished, and that TV was indeed serving as a distraction. So we shut it off for the month, with some built-in exceptions. (E.G. I had just begun a Lord of the Rings watch-through for the first time in years, and wasn’t finished yet. I had also ordered the 1408 DVD for my Halloween treat, and missed the opportunity to watch it during October.)

This Thanksgiving Break, I wrote over 27,000 words, most toward my current novel. In the moments that I wasn’t stuffing my face, sleeping, or writing, I needed a break. The gym was closed, (don’t laugh at me, I go to the gym to get a break, release stress, and listen to audio books) and there weren’t exactly many options open to us. We made a few exceptions and watched some movies.

Movies are one of my favorite ways to get a break from writing, because I can experience a totally different story from beginning to end in just an hour and a half. I can experience setting, character, and plot and if the movie is good – I have a good time.

The Adjustment Bureau

I started things off right with the Adjustment Bureau. I’d already seen this in the theater, and loved it from beginning to end. Basically it’s a Romance with an almost-Matrixy feel, involving these men wearing suits and bowler hats who control the future of human society. Matt Damon’s character (David) discovers these men at work (through a slip-up), and is told that he has to stay away from a girl he likes because “the plan says so”. It’s a classic love vs. fate plotline.

A professional critic wrote a review that warned that the ending was cheesy, and I’ll have to say… yeah, I agree. But it’s the good kind of cheese, the kind that you want extra on that pizza that Kevin orders just for him. It’s the kind of cheese that makes me feel warm and good inside, and I love it.

What I learned from the Adjustment Bureau: People are writing stories that I would have totally come up with, and they’re getting made into movies. I do not have singular tastes, and I should trust my ideas more.

Temple Grandin

Next, I watched Temple Grandin with my family. It is based on the true life story of Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, widely known for her voice on the experience of being autistic. I have been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and was not disappointed; it was riveting, and very educational for anyone who is curious about how autism works.

What I learned from Temple Grandin: Mostly that I just really respect the lady, and that I want to read her book “Emergence” as soon as I can. Since this was based on a real-life story, the only plotting lesson I could learn is that life really can supply some of the best inspiration for conflict and opposition.

Return to Me

I’m a guy that likes Romances. Usually I prefer Romantic Comedies, but I can watch something more sentimental if it has some wit to it. I’d borrowed Return to Me months ago from my sister, and eventually got too busy with the wedding for movies. Now seemed like the best time to watch it. She warned me that it was a bit cheesy, but that she loved the old men in the movie. I actually thought it was a really touching story. However (and it’s this part that usually gets me into trouble), the reason the story was so corny was because the conflict at the end was so unbelievable. The whole thing hinges on Grace being unable to confess that she’s had a heart transplant, even though it would have fit really easily into some of the conversations they had.

I’m sorry, what? You can’t tell this guy you really connect with that you had a Heart Transplant? What’s worse is that they continue on this path to drive the entire climax of the film, because when she finally does tell him (after finding out that her new heart was his late wife’s), he walks off. Everything we’ve seen about this character has shown him to be a man in emotional control, who is respectful and considerate and all the things we know most men struggle with. So he walks off without so much of a “Whoa, this is a bit heavy… I might need some time to digest this, babe.”

Now let me come back to what I was saying originally. I thought the movie was charming. It was, for the most part, a great balance of sentimentality with a dash of witty humor. I loved the characters. I loved the dialogue. If these two were mine and Sara’s friends, it would have made a REALLY cute dinner story to tell folks.

I really enjoyed… almost the entire movie. It was just the ending that fell apart, all because the conflict was so impossible to believe. Not only that, but the “Character can’t tell the truth about something” conflict is a horrible choice, and smacks of Disney TV movies.

Hitch

If you want to see an example of this kind of conflict done RIGHT, watch Hitch. You’ll notice that the conflict was built out of a lot more than just “Hitch didn’t tell her what he does for a living”. It had all sorts of problems; the paparazzi, Alfred’s insecurity, Sara’s strong personality and desire to defend her friend, the fact that their relationship has been relatively short, and the nature of Hitch’s job ALL lead together to make the conflict work.

All the same, if you’re constructing a romance, I would strongly encourage you to look for a different conflict than “this character can’t tell the truth for some reason”.

Cool Runnings

Cool Runnings was one of my very favorite movies as a kid. I haven’t seen it since I was about 10, and I never had the opportunity to watch it until recently when it was found in Sara’s collection. Even then, she put it in and I walked in partway through and got caught up in it. I don’t know why I didn’t put it in myself… I think part of me was afraid the same thing would happen as when I watched Three Ninjas when I was older and realized it was a really, really dumb film. That killed one of my favorite movie experiences, and I didn’t want to taint Cool Runnings in my memory.

Whatever your opinion about cheesy Live-Action movie films from the 90s, this film is still awesome. It was about a laugh a minute, and I absolutely love the ending. The movie peppers in conflict throughout, so that instead of getting one huge showdown of hero vs. villain at the end, we watch the team overcome adversity time and time again.

I loved it! I don’t think stories always need to have everything converge at the end. This felt authentic, despite the funny jokes in bad accents, overall silliness, and corny moving speeches from John Candy. Once again, I felt that the sled-breaking in the end felt somewhat fateful, like a slice of life and deus ex machina all rolled into one. But that’s okay. I could believe it would happen.

So the convergence of all these lessons comes to this; If you want to write any idea or genre and you don’t know if it will be well-received, just go for it. Just avoid the “can’t tell the truth” as a major conflict, and make the heroine’s heart act up and put her in the hospital instead. Makes more sense anyway.

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