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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

John August and the Bleeding Human Heart of a Story

This morning screenwriter John August tweeted

How I Became a Famous Novelist, or at least bought the book rights as my next movie

My first impression was, “Wha?” The title sounded like one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves at The Writer’s Store giving advice and encouragement to would be scribes. What was the writer of Corpse Bride and Big Fish up to? When I clicked I found out. How I Became a Famous Novelist is a fiction novel (apparently a knee slapping hilarious one at that) written by Steve Hely, now a writer on 30 Rock. According to a press release it’s about:

The book tells the story of Pete Tarslaw, an ambitiously underachieving college grad who writes a shamelessly maudlin and derivative Great American Novel for the sole purpose of upstaging his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. When the book becomes a bestseller, he finds himself sucked into a strange coterie of mega-authors and their attendants.

Immediately I started chuckling at the thought. I tweeted back to John August that I thought it was a great logline. That got me thinking why it works so well. The answer was in the first sentence, “…for the sole purpose of upstaging his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.” That’s when the story became funny to me. It may seem that it makes the hero Pete Tarslaw less sympathetic and it does. Deliberately disrupting a girl’s wedding is pretty low. And it may only be a minor part of the overall story. But it made Pete a real person. It gave him a relationship, albeit a messed up one, with another human being. You can tell he at least cares about what his friends think of him in relation to his ex and maybe still harbors feelings deep down inside for her. Those feelings may be leading him to do bad things, but we can understand why he would go down that path. Imagine for a moment the logline without that touch of flawed humanity.

An ambitiously underachieving college grad writes a shamelessly maudlin and derivative Great American Novel. When the book becomes a bestseller, he finds himself sucked into a strange coterie of mega-authors and their attendants.

It’s much colder and drier now. It reads more like a critique of the literary world disguised as a story. It’s all intellect and no heart. Without that one little detail, Pete Tarslaw goes from a real human to a metaphor walking around dealing with a bunch of weird characters. That one unflattering little detail sketches in so much of Pete Tarslaw’s character that he becomes real to the reader in just those few sentences. It gives him some personal stakes in the story.

It’s just a few words but beginning writers leave them out of their loglines and completed scripts all the time. When asked to up the personal stakes, beginners complain about having to put in “standard Hollywood drivel” into their scripts. Admittedly in lesser hands these can be as “maudlin and derivative” as Tarslaw’s novel. A hack might turn Pete’s ex-girlfriend into a harpy who deserves to have the happiest day of her life wrecked or go the other way and have her be the idealized gal pal who’s about to marry an ogre. The audience would be wondering either why does Pete care or why did they break up in the first place. But John August isn’t going to let that happen with this material. He’ll take that little detail and spin a complicated and very human relationship between Pete and his ex-girlfriend. That’s how all screenwriters should approach such material.

The difference between success and failure, between a sale and a “see ya later,” can come down to just a few choice words. Writers should look at the above example and what those 9 words mean to How I Became a Famous Novelist. They should remember to give their own characters similar personal stakes in the story, even if it makes them sound a little less than perfect.

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