Friday, December 26, 2014

Notes on Wild the Memoir and the Movie, by Bill Johnson

I’m always intrigued when a best-selling novel or memoir is turned in to a movie because they are such different mediums. A memoir allows us to share and experience what the author is feeling and thinking (and remembering). A movie shows us what happened, supported by dialogue and some thoughts (via voice over).

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild starts with what in screenwriting is called an inciting incident, her throwing a hiking boot off the Pacific Coast Trail. The memoir has the same incident and more; it offers a context for who Cheryl is, a now bootless orphan in a very bad situation.

Same situation, but the memoir gets to a deeper place about who Cheryl is, that her mother has died, her step-father has left, and her brother has drifted away. She’s an orphan with one choice on the trail, and in life: to keep walking.

The memoir does a better job of pulling readers in to want to know more about Cheryl’s life and how she found herself in this situation and what she’ll do about it. The movie quickly and neatly shows what happens, Cheryl accidently knocking one boot off a cliff, then throwing the other boot after it.

Continuing with the memoir’s chapter one, Cheryl learns her mother is dying. Her mother’s death is a primary cause of how Cheryl ends up on the trail. The movie goes down a different path; it shows what a free spirit the mother is and how much her children love and adore her.

Again, the memoir is more deeply felt about what gets Cheryl to the trail; the movie is more visual about her life with her mother before her fatal illness.

The movie, then, does a great job of showing why the mother’s death would have such an impact on Cheryl, but it also leads the movie to having a slower, more episodic pace as scenes of her childhood are mixed with scenes on the trail. As Cheryl hikes, different situations evoke different memoires of her life.

In terms of storytelling, it’s not that either choice is wrong, just that one (the memoir) gets readers to a deeper place than where the movie takes viewers.

The first chapter of the memoir ends with powerful writing, among the lines... ‘It took me be the woman my mother raised.’

The memoir evokes, step by step, starting from page one, that journey. The movie doesn’t begin that aspect of Cheryl’s journey until the death of her mother.

Returning to the movie, when Cheryl checks in at a motel the night before she begins hiking the trail, the memoir has a pivotal scene. Cheryl has difficulty checking in to the cheap motel because she doesn’t have an address. She’s not going back to where she came from, and she doesn’t know where she’ll end up. This is a lovely metaphor for the situation Cheryl finds herself. The movie, instead, focuses on the hotel clerk insisting that Cheryl will have to pay more for the room if she shares it with anyone (i.e., a boyfriend or a trick).

The memoir gets across something deep and true about Cheryl’s life at that moment, while the movie goes for being clever and witty.

When Cheryl sets out the next day, the movie does quickly and neatly show Cheryl’s alertness about which men appear trustworthy and which are scary and potential predators. And in both the movie and memoir, with some men it’s just not clear if they are a threat until a scene progresses.

Both the movie and the book deal with the breakup of Cheryl’s marriage, but the memoir more clearly puts the break up in the context of Cheryl’s life after her mother’s death. The first third of the movie tends to cross cut between the trail and the marriage ending and the aftermath, when Cheryl turns to drugs and casual sex to ease her pain over her mother’s death.

These Paul scenes in the movie play well, but they also tend to give the marriage and its breakup a more prominent role then they have in the memoir. The memoir does a better job of weaving all these threads into a whole picture of Cheryl’s life then.

Returning to men, and specifically the men Cheryl meets on the trail, the memoir conveys more of her friendly encounters and some on-going contacts based on notes left at stations along the trail. The memoir gets to a deeper place about how magical and charming some of these encounters are (and also strange and disquieting). In the movie we get an encounter with a ranger looking for a sexual conquest, while in the memoir that situation is a continuation of an encounter Cheryl has had with three free-spirited young men.

Another significant difference between the movie and memoir is that the movie suggests a fox Cheryl comes across is a kind of spirit guide or totem that accompanies her on her journey. In the memoir, Cheryl tends to have mostly encounters with rattlesnakes and can sometimes hear but not see larger animals.

Continuing with the movie, it conveys in a heart felt way the immediate aftermath of the death of Cheryl’s mother.

Once the movie gets to that death, the movie has more dramatic tension. The work done previously to established Cheryl’s close bond with her mother now pays off.

In both the movie and memoir, once Cheryl gets past Ashland, the pace of the story picks up significantly.

Having read (and loved) the memoir first, I wasn’t in a position to completely judge the movie on its own merits. I enjoyed the movie but didn’t love it.

How the memoir and movie each set out to tell the same basic story offers a lesson in how a literary work can be reimagined as a movie, and the pitfalls involved.

That said, I don’t envy anyone the job of transforming a popular literary work into a movie. It’s a job fraught with difficultly.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Win a Copy of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Story Is a Promise & the Spirit of Storytelling by Bill Johnson

A Story Is a Promise & the Spirit of Storytelling

by Bill Johnson

Giveaway ends December 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Story as Physical Journey, Notes on Cheryl Strayed's Memoir Wild

by Bill Johnson

Coupling a story to a physical journey is one way to create a clear quality of movement, that underlying dynamic that makes a story 'work.' The stages of the physical journey can correspond to the stages in the story.

Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild is a wonderful example of this kind of storytelling.

Wild starts with a prologue that takes a dramatic scene from deeper within the story, when Cheryl has lost one hiking boot and tosses another off the trail. This raises powerful questions: what brought her to this point, and could she continue the hike, or how could she continue, in this situation?

She also conveys she is alone, a stray; that with her mother's death her step-father withdrew from her life and her siblings drifted away, and she drifted into odd jobs, drugs, and casual sex.

This leads to an answer to why she is on the Pacific Crest Trail: to find herself. This raises the question, will she find herself by finishing the hike? We have to read to the end of the book to find out. Because as a reader I want to know, the prologue has done its job.

The prologue ends with the line that even bootless, Cheryl had one option, "To keep walking." This is also a powerful metaphor for how to live life.

Cheryl then goes to the beginning of the hike, the thoughts that crystallized the idea, the preparation, the packing, the real decision to begin the hike, which makes her realize the hike had another beginning, her mother's death from cancer.

The plot of the memoir - the hike along the trail - now connects to a deeper layer of emotions and understanding.

Many people think of plot as a sequence of events, but those events must be connected to something deeper to have meaning. This is true whether the story is Fellini's 8 ½ or the action film Lethal Weapon. The action of the plot events striking characters puts characters into deeper states of feeling, and the reader gets to experience those states.

But first, Cheryl sets the story and plot into motion together in the prologue. Then, when we want to know more about her, she gives us more, by returning to her life with her dying mother and the exchange:

I did not want to do this, but I did, inexplicable, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, "Have I been the best daughter in the world?"

   She said yes, I had, of course.

   But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother's mind and for them to be delivered, fresh to me.

   I was ravenous for love.

This is pure, heartfelt emotion and need.

When her mother dies, Cheryl writes...

I didn't know where I was going until I got there.

   It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

Now that we understand something about Cheryl, now we are ready for the hike to begin, at least if Cheryl can check into a motel for a night. Because she doesn't have a home to return to or knowledge of where she'll live when the hike is over, this moment of trying to check into the cheap hotel reflects something deeper about Cheryl's situation in this world. By not having/owning/nesting some place, she's free to chart her own course.

Most worldly people surround themselves with things (job, home, spouse, child) and feel rooted to this world, or, in some cases, stuck, bound to a life half-lived out of duty and half lived out of fear.

At this moment, Cheryl thinks back to her marriage with Paul, again matching the journey to emotions.

This chapter ends with, 'I only knew that it was time to go, so I opened the door and stepped into the light.'

The use of the word light here echoes with that understanding of dying and going into the light. Cheryl is giving birth to a new life for herself. She's not withholding the purpose of the trip, she's setting it out with bold, lucid clarity, so her readers can share the moment and the journey. Struggling writers can't escape the flawed idea that storytelling is about withholding information, instead of being about revealing information that allows readers to share a story's journey.

The physical journey onto the trail in Wild is announced as Part Two of the book. It has a comical beginning, with Cheryl at first unable to get her heavily loaded backpack hefted onto her shoulders. The natural metaphor is of the heavy baggage we all carry, but in Cheryl's case, she's aware of the weight of her baggage for the first time.

When she needs to get the pack on again and a young man offers to help, she turns him down. The Cheryl before the trail probably would have been glad for the help. It's subtle, but it defines how her character is changing even in the opening moments of the journey.

Within an hour, her mind is telling her to give up, but Cheryl had made a deal with herself:

'I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I choose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me."

A powerful realization, and because she's using it in a situation that would seem to be overwhelming, it has a powerful impact. But she still has to prove out this new identity by finishing the journey.

Getting through to her first night on the trail, Cheryl reads a poem over and over again, 'Power.'

On this second day, she comes to the realization, 'I was in entirely new terrain.'

Now she experiences the reality of a mountain and as the days mount, she comes to understand after an encounter with a bull, '...was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.'

So she walks on, choosing to go forward, not back, into this new life that will not be numbed down.

If Cheryl had taken the path of writing one chapter in the present and then one in the past, she would have needed to find another way to create the same powerful fusion of story and plot and physical journey. For some struggling writers the underlying problem is they want to use writing about the past as a way to explain or introduce their story, plot, and main character, before setting their story into motion. It risks making the beginning of a story a recitation of details of events and situations and people, without giving a reader a context or a reader to care or feel invested in what happens next.

As she continues the hike, Cheryl finds herself in a now awareness. 'I saw no one, but, strange as it was, I missed no one.'

She experiencing life in her own skin, not as an on-going reaction to others that is constantly mulled over and dissected into dust, until the next anxiety train pulls into the station.

As she continues on the trail, Cheryl begins to hear about the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and she meets an experienced hiker who tells her it might not be possible to get through the snow-covered trail. That gives her pause, but his belief that she's doing fine also lifts her spirits. Now she has a new mantra at night:

Who is tougher than me? No one.

The sadness for most people, they have a different answer.

As she continues, Cheryl realizes she can bear the unbearable. She continues...

'I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.'

Going through a period of hot sun and lack of water, she appreciates the unending depths of pleasure in drinking a Snapple.

Facing hiking a section of the trail with now too small boots and only sandals, she must 'ride into battle like a warrior' to get through the next section of trail and the new boots waiting for her.

Here we catch up to the prologue, when losing one boot, she throws the other after it. Now she must finish this portion of the hike in sandals that are held together with duct tape.

In a clear cut forest, she sees a metaphor for the destruction of her family after her mother's death. And half way through her hike, she realizes she's had so many amazing experiences, she no longer need feel amazed that her step father abandoned her when her mother died.

'There were so many other amazing things in the world.

'They opened up inside me like a river...I laughed with the joy of it.'

'I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world, too.'

She is transforming, and she writes in a way that allows us to share the moment.

The memoir continues, the hike now moving into Oregon, stopping in Ashland, then back on the trail.

Now, she confronts her feelings about her mother, who kept her and her siblings isolated from others, who died before Cheryl could grow up and feel distant to her, to share her failings with friends. Until she realizes, her mother had always given her all the love she had to offer; and Cheryl begins to heal inside.

Now the story picks up pace, and she writes about hiking through Oregon, 'I skipped it, I spun it, leapt it in my imagination...'

As she nears the end of the trail for her, sleeping in a futon with three young man, she realizes, 'For once I didn't ache for companionship. For once the phrase woman with a hole in her heart didn't thunder through my brain.'

As the hike comes to an end, she is now ready to release the final weight she carries on the trail, the burden of her memory of her mother.

Now at the end of her journey, she thinks to the universe, 'Thank you,' and, 'it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true.'

Wild, a powerful, powerful work, deserving of its acclaim.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, books, and plays, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Daniel Wilson Interview on Author's Road

The fireplace in Daniel's very tidy office. He is without a doubt the most organized writer we have interviewed.

It was a great interview.

Daniel sporting his Miskatonic shirt. Miskatonic University is a fictional east-coast university that first appeared in H.P. Lovecraft's 1922 story "Herbert West–Reanimator" and was later used by other writers.

Nope, you don't find a Sci-Fi entry but Victorian – calm and lovely.

The green green view from a window.

We found Daniel's hidden front door up a small hill and behind much Portlandesque vegetation.

A lovely mix of books - some children's, Daniel's newest book "Robogenesis" and a book on the Great Plains, where Daniel is from.

Daniel signing our prized book at his desk.

Art reflects roots. Daniel is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

A little music on the mantle.

In this insightful and exciting interview, Wilson tells of his life’s trajectory, from those first books and stories to his most recent efforts in novels, movies and gaming. His books and conversation reflect his passion and degrees in Computer Science (BS), Robotics (MS), Machine Learning (MS), Robotics (PhD). Throughout our conversation he shares who and what helped influence him most, and his remarkable insights on the art of writing and the business of publishing. Daniel H. Wilson’s interview is one that will surely inspire readers and writers of all genres.

Late along that timeline a young boy in Oklahoma discovered what he called a “time machine.” It was science fiction books, paperbacks from his father’s small library and a local used bookstore. A strange thing happened when he opened one of these. Somehow the sun would shift, hours disappeared, and he felt different.

Those experiences would shape Wilson’s life as he tried to balance his goals of becoming a scientist, and his natural gift of being a writer. Like a machine he plowed ahead, winning a PhD in robotics from a leading university; and like a dreamer he continued to write, starting with non-fiction and short stories, and evolving into bestselling novels and movies.

It’s been an historical arc of five centuries, from the first known designs of a mechanical knight by Leonardo da Vinci, to the latest bestsellers detailing robot warfare by Daniel H. Wilson. Along that historical path are scattered the dreams of helpful automaton workers, and a myriad of nightmares about soulless robot predators.


View the interview.

Author's Road

Thursday, September 4, 2014

As Above, So Below, And Plot Above All

As Above, So Below, And Plot Above All

by Bill Johnson

This movie offers a good example of what happens when a movie is mostly plot with very little story. Story, in most successful Hollywood films, revolves around a character who embodies some issue of human need, with the character set in motion to resolve that issue by a story's plot.

As Above, So Below takes just a few moments to introduce something that drives the main character, a young woman, who has conflicted feelings about her father's suicide, and seconds to introduce the young man who helps her and his unresolved guilt over a younger brother's death. Then it's off to the crypts under Paris and about 30 minutes of a group of people trying to find a hidden chamber. There are a few 'boo' moments, but mostly its just more of the same as minor characters die in turn.

Toward the end of the film, the young woman comes across the hanging body of her father and she reconciles with him by hugging his hanging corpse. Her helper, also in a few moments, reconciles with his dead younger brother.

What drives these characters is resolved in seconds, leaving in its wake people walking through tunnels, crawling through tunnels, or running through tunnels, with the minor characters dying at a predictable rate.

The Descent, a film about some women cave diving, showed how this kind of plot could be in the service of a story.

It's oft repeated that a film generally needs to have a main character the audience chooses to feel invested in or care about. Films can violate that if they offer something else. As Above, So Below doesn't.

(If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on Tweeter or Facebook.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bill Johnson Offers Workshop at Write on the Sound

Write on the Sound (WOTS) is a unique, high quality, affordable conference focusing on the craft of writing. Over 30 workshops and panel discussions are presented for all levels and interests, including valuable information regarding today's publishing industry. A limited admission of 275 attendees makes WOTS the perfect place to spark your creativity, share ideas and network with other writers.

Now in its 29th year, WOTS attracts presenters and participants from all over the Northwest, the U.S. and from abroad. Plenty of free time is available to explore the picturesque community of Edmonds, located right on the Puget Sound.

This year's conference highlights are:

* Pre-conference full-day and half-day workshops and sessions
* Over 30 regular conference workshops and panel discussions
* Manuscript critiques
* A writing contest (this year's theme is "Catch")
* An evening with film critic Robert Horton on Friday October 3rd
* Keynote speaker Robert J. Sawyer on Saturday October 4th
* Round table topic discussions during Sunday October 5th lunch hour
* Presentation by illustrator and author Robyn Chance on Sunday October 5th

Willamette Writers members Bill Johnson and Clark Kohanek will be teaching workshops. Bill's workshop is the problems that arise when an author make's a novel's main character an extension of the author's issues in life. Bill will also be doing manuscript critiques as part of the conference.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nye Beach Writers Series Presents... Sandra Stone

Nye Beach Writers Series Presents...

An Evening with: Sandra Stone author of Cocktails with Brueghel at the Museum Café

August 16, 2014 - 7pm at the Newport Visual Arts Center

$6 admission, students free

Sandra Stone is a visual and conceptual artist as well as a poet, playwright and author of literary fiction and nonfiction. She has received many awards, and more than 35 commissions from major architectural firms to create art for both public interiors and the landscape. She describes her work as "creating metaphor for space through architectural concepts, context, and literary text." Her books include Cocktails with Brueghel at the Museum Café; her plays include POof, An Imperfect Place to Dispose of Files; Yes, Out; and What Everything Is.

OPEN MIC The Writers' Series open mic will take place following intermission. Audience members are encouraged to read, sing, or recite original work for up to five minutes. Open mic slots are available to the first 10 writers who sign up. No pre-registration required.


Four novels and a single-author collection of stories are finalists for the Endeavour Award. The 2014 Award will be the sixteenth year for the Endeavour, which comes with an honorarium of $1,000.00. The winner will be announced November 7, 2014, at OryCon, Oregon's major science fiction convention. The finalists are: "King of Swords" by Dave Duncan (47North), "Meaning of Luff," a collection of stories by Matthew Hughes (Create Space); "Nexus" by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot); "Protector" by C.J. Cherryh (DAW Books); and "Requiem" by Ken Scholes (Tor Books). The Endeavour Award honors a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book, either a novel or a single-author collection, created by a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. All entries are read and scored by seven readers randomly selected from a panel of preliminary readers. The five highest scoring books then go to three judges, who are all professional writers or editors from outside of the Pacific Northwest.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Author's Road Interviews Cara Black

By our very nature, we are storytellers. And most of us have experienced going to someplace new and hearing a story we thought would make a great poem, short story, novel, maybe a movie. Perhaps we’d note it in our journal, re-tell it to a friend, and sometimes go that one more step and draft the story.
Our latest interviewee, bestselling mystery writer, Cara Black, went all the way. It required several years, dozens of classes and critique groups, reams of drafts, but she managed to write a novel about a mystery in her favorite city, Paris, solved by her heroine, Aimée Leduc and Aimée's friends.

Since that first novel Cara has managed each year to add a new, compelling mystery centered in different neighborhoods (arrondissements) inside The City of Light. She’s now published her fourteenth novel in the bestselling series, and she is working on mapping out her future works.

We were thrilled when she agreed to meet with us in her home overlooking San Francisco. And we were even more excited when towards the end of the interview she shared a literary surprise that spans across the series of her novels.

But have no fear, this isn’t a spoiler alert. You have to watch the interview to learn what it is.

George, Salli & Ella

Next Up: Bestselling popular science writer (and lecturer), Mary Roach

Thanks for . . .

. . . joining us . . .

. . . on the road!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering a Story's Details

In the July 2014 issue of Discovery Magazine (Hold That Thought, p 30-33), scientist Elizabeth Phelps, a past president of the Association for Psychological Science and a psychologist at New York University, is interviewed about memory. She speaks in the article that recalling memories shows activation in two parts of the brain. Recalling details about ‘physical locations and layouts’ activates the posterior parahipocampus. When we recall the feelings associated with memories, ‘we see more amygdala involvement.’

In tests, Phelps found that ‘we’re set up to capture time and place.’ That makes it easier to recall such details, an evolutionary advantage.

When I work with struggling authors, I often find a focus on those details and much less a focus on the feelings of characters. I believe the way our brain functions makes it easier for new writers to come up with those details. Such a focus risks becoming tedious, however, reducing a story to a series of descriptions of events. I call this writing style ‘watch the movie and write down the details.’

A bigger problem with this style of writing is that readers often access a story’s characters through the feelings events generate. To leave out those feelings denies readers a prime entry point into a character’s inner life and goals. This is especially true when a main character becomes a kind of automaton, recording visual details.

To help such writers, I have them write out beside each paragraph the feelings of the main character in the scene and how the events of the scene impact and change that character’s feelings. If those feelings don’t change, nothing has happened in the scene to impact the character and, generally, not the reader, either.

The subtle trap here is that those situations and places might evoke feelings in the author, which makes them symbolic to the author and meaningless to the reader, evoking nothing (except perhaps irritation).

All hugely successful stories are journeys of feeling for readers, supported by details of time and place. If you’re telling a story, take care to convey those feelings in a way your readers can share the story journey.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Friday, June 6, 2014

When a Middle Fails a Beginning and End

Maleficent, a new film starring Angelina Jolie, has a wonderful opening and a wonderful close, but the middle seriously sags. Why that happens speaks to a problem with story structure.

The film opens with Jolie as a mythical creature and a young girl who watches over and protects the Moor, where other creatures like pixies roam. Humans occupy a nearby kingdom. Each mostly keep to their realm until a young man enters the Moor to steal a jewel and is caught by Jolie. They become friends, grow up together, and she falls in love with him.

When the nearby king fails in an attack on the Moor, the young man uses Jolie's love for him to take her wings and get himself appointed king. This sets up a central question, will she get revenge? She curses the new king's daughter so that when she reaches 16, she will fall into a deep sleep that can only be woken from a kiss of true love.

In this middle section, Maleficent watches over the girl, whom she clearly and deeply loves. As the girl gets to know Maleficent, she comes to love her like a mother. But this section of the movie mostly keeps the king scheming to destroy Maleficent off-stage, and there's no real drama around seeing Maleficent care for the girl. Beautifully acted by Jolie, yes; the narrative tension necessary to sustain the movie, no.

Narrative tension is generated when a character has a clear goal accessible to a story's audience, and is blocked from achieving that goal. When an audience has internalized a character achieving that, the narrative tension is transferred to the audience. This is what makes a story compelling.

Maleficent has no narrative tension in its middle section, so the drama of the story sags.

Jolie's wonderful performance can't make up for that.

Jolie as an actress had the same problem in the movie Changeling. Great performance, no narrative tension.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When a Mystery is a Mystery

My starting point for exploring story structure was a class taught by a literary agent at the time, David Morgan, who had studied with Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!). Egri taught that a story has a premise, character+conflict=resolution. But my background in science fiction had shown me that some stories don't have human characters, or characters at all. In science fiction, some characters embody ideas, not human emotions in conflict. And in literary fiction, some stories also have characters who embody ideas (Camus' The Plague, how middle-class people deal with impending death).

I decided a premise would be a dramatic issue, movement, and the movement of that issue to fulfillment.

Later I found it easier for students to think of a story's core dramatic issue as its promise, and that a storyteller could begin a story with the introduction of its promise and moving it toward its fulfillment.

The science fiction film Under the Skin demonstrates how a story can revolve around ideas more than characters. The main character is an alien that takes on the body of a young female. She/it then goes out seducing young men into a liquid that dissolves their bodies into a slurry fed into a mostly hidden chamber. The alien has only a basic understanding of human communication.

When the alien picks up a young man who has a horribly disfigured face, the alien clearly can't tell the difference, but it does come to take pity on the young man, who is not killed and dissolved. This act of mercy separates the alien from its human male-appearing handlers. It goes off with a man it meets at a bus stop. When the man attempts to initiate sex, the alien has no idea how a male penis and female vagina interact. She runs off, is found in some woods by a rapist, who, when he pulls off some of the alien's human covering, comes back with a can of gas and sets the alien on fire. The alien appears to die, or at least the body it's in dies.

The film seems to be a story about how the alien developing feelings of human compassion doom it.

I'm sure others who watched the film could come to other, equally valid conclusions. This is a film where things happen with no explanation.

For this kind of film to work, a film maker needs to have something to say. The director has something to say, but he's not saying it in the traditional, Hollywood style film that typically offers an accessible main character with a clearly defined issue of human need who transports the story's audience to the fulfillment of its promise. Here, the viewer must interpret what happens and what it means.

Under the Skin does, in its own way, explore the ideas it generates, about how an alien might interact with humans, unlike a film like Prometheus that generates ideas (Jesus was an alien) but doesn't explore them.

Under the Skin is beautiful shot, directed, composed, acted, and edited, so it is a pleasure to experience while it unfolds on the screen. People who like challenging films should give this a view.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Love in the Movies

When you watch a film like Sleepless in Seattle, you know Ryan and Hanks will find and love each other. Just as easily, in six months they could go through the world's ugliest divorce. There's nothing in the film that really conveys they have intimate feelings for each other. Other Hollywood films might get the main characters into bed but they end up in the same place, two actors pretending to be in love because that's what they are being paid to do.

Then along comes Only Lovers Left Alive, a new film by Jim Jarmusch. To get this out of the way, I love his films, and the way they ask me to think and experience what I see on the screen. What Lovers also conveys through its two main characters is what an intimate relationship between two loving, sexual adults looks like. Watching the film I believed these two characters love each other.

I don't often see this in films, partly I suspect because there aren't many actresses of the caliber of Tilda Swinton. The last time I recall seeing kind of intimacy was in the Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon and Franka Potente. As the two characters became close and fell in love, I could see why he would go through hell to avenge her death.

It does take time to create this kind of relationship, and good acting, and Jarmusch takes the time with two wonderful actors.

As a story, Only Lovers Left Alive is about managing the mundane in an immortal life.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Friday, May 30, 2014

When a Movie Makes Odd Choices

Notes on Godzilla

Godzilla opens with something huge escaping from an underground cavern in the Philippines, then a nuclear reactor disaster in Japan that takes the life of an American working at the plant, the wife of an engineer played by Bryan Cranston.

Jump ahead 15 years. He's become crazed trying to prove something caused the disaster, that it wasn't a problem with the reactors failing. His now adult son, in the military, doesn't believe him but is willing to join him in a trip into the closed off disaster zone, where they find zero radioactivity. They are quickly captured by the people guarding the secret of what happened, and soon Cranston is dead and a monster that eats radioactive material is unleashed.

So, we've lost what seemed to be the main character, and the monster unleashed is NOT Godzilla, and the son isn't clearly defined as a character. He helps a child find its parents, he's involved in the military mission to try and kill the now TWO monsters that are not Godzilla, and kill Godzilla, too. But he doesn't feel connected to any deeper purpose (other than reconciling briefly with his father); he's just a guy doing his job.

Along the way, many minor characters are given the kind of screen time that would have an impact if the story were more clearly defined. They are simply people responding to a crisis. I never thought I'd see a film where Juliette Binoche made zero impression.

I didn't understand why Bryan Cranston wasn't the main character who is seeking to avenge his wife's death and the humiliation of his warning about what was coming being ignored. I also didn't understand why Godzilla was reduced to the role of a minor character.

In a sense, the movie is trying to be realistic, but it's not realistic that a creature like Godzilla could exist without being noticed or registering on some kind of scientific instruments. In the recent film Battleship it was preposterous that a bunch of old sailors could quickly get an aged Battleship back to sea in fighting condition. But the movie wasn't trying to be realistic, so I just enjoyed the second run, low cost matinee show. They did it with a wink, and I was happy to slyly wink back and think 'bravo!' when the old coots saved the day.

Not so with Godzilla. Visually, the soldiers sky diving into San Francisco was cool. That was about it for me being thrilled watching the film. Monsters destroying stuff is just CGI to me now.

Odd choices all around.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Acting as a Lens into Character

I recently saw the French film Bicycling With Moliere. It's about a successful actor on a popular drama; he's recognized and pretty much adored wherever he goes. He's decided to prove his chops as an actor by performing Moliere's The Misanthrope with an actor leading a reclusive life on an island. That actor agrees to consider doing the play, but only if they switch doing the lead role during the performance, and if the successful actor will rehearse the play with him for a week.

What I found intriguing in the movie is how, as the actors switch roles in the play, the choices they make for delivering lines speaks to something deeper that animates each man. By the time the popular actor appears in the play and loses his way, it's clear from his rehearsals that he lost his way years before. The busyness of his successful life allowed him to maintain a cheerful, in control facade.

The realization for the reclusive actor is that he can't go back to living among the feral wolves, which is how he sees the people who revolve around the successful actor.

The acting in the movie is subtle and playful, but the story does take each actor to a deeper place.

Actors like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson became successful, in part, because they choose roles (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) that took their characters to a place where a facade was replaced by a deeper state of human feeling. When you come across a hugely successful film or story, you'll generally find that transformation of character. It's a journey audiences love to experience.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Discovering a New Artist

I went to see the documentary Finding Vivian Maier just because I like documentaries and I wanted to check out a remodel of the theater, Cinema 21 in Portland. I'm not a photographer, so I had no pre-conceived ideas about Vivian Maier. The documentary was created after someone in Chicago bought some negatives shot by Vivian, and when he developed some and posted them to the internet, discovered she was an amazing photographer who would shoot images of people on the streets of Chicago.

The photographs in the documentary are so amazing I would find myself gasping out some one or two word response aloud, something I have never done in a movie theater. Her ability to capture a truth(s) about the people she came across amazed me.

As the documentary continued, it came out that she was a hoarder. Both my parents were hoarders, so the film resonated with me on another level. (My mother had 4x8 foot sheets of plywood in her living room to better be able to stack bags of newspapers and magazines to save articles she thought could be read latter. When she passed away, I found an old, greasy mess of the hood of a stove buried in the middle of the pile).

Then it came out that Vivian, who worked her entire life as a nanny, abused at least one of her charges, a young girl, choking her to make her swallow food. In my day, as long as parents didn't put a kid in the hospital, discipline was anything a parent thought appropriate. My mother would whip me with a razor strap (a thick piece of leather). My neighborhood pals mostly came from better off families, so when they had something coming, they usually got it from a leather belt. I always thought of that as a kind of status symbol.

So the documentary hit me on a number of different levels, and I would put it in the top ten of all the films I've seen in my life in terms of the impact it had on me.

Anyone with an interest with photography should see this documentary, the images are that amazing.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Transcendence Fails to Transcend

Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find an audience often offer lessons in storytelling. Transcendence is an example.

In most successful films, a main character embodies a story's promise (what the story is about) and that character experiences narrative tension around the course and outcome of the story. Transcendence violates this by starting with the aftermath of what's happened in the film with a major, but secondary character. This sets up a plot question, what happened to create the world we see in the opening scene? We then meet Johnny Depp in the present. He's a scientist working to create a singularity, an artificial, highly intelligent computer system that has the potential to evolve rapidly. But Depp is soon shot and dies, and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer. This takes 25 minutes. The action is slow and the settings mostly dark.

Main character #3 is kidnapped to force him to help shut down the new version of Depp, and he experiences narrative tension about this, but he's not the main character. These scenes run about twenty five minutes.

Eventually he's reunited with Depp's wife, who builds a massive underground compound at Depp's direction and guidance, using new technologies he's creating. A scientist friend gets into the facility and suggests to her the possibility that the A.I. is using Depp's personality to mislead her, and its real plan is to wipe out humanity and take over the world under the guise of using nano-technology to heal the crippled and end pollution. Now she experiences narrative tension. But she's not quite the main character in the film, either.

This builds to a major confrontation and some significant action (the trailer suggests this is an action film; that's not true at all). With the action, there's more tension generated about the plot about how the battle to shut down this facility/Depp will play out. To save his human wife, a newly minted Depp in a physical body allows himself to be infected with a virus she carries.

Depp and the wife he loves die together; her love has pulled on what was left of Depp to do the right thing. He dies, and since everything about his nano technology has already infected the world, everything in the world (anything connected to the internet or run from the internet) shuts down.

The film ends with main character #3 in a garden created by the human Depp that shields some of the nano technology that could rebuild the world. Will he allow the technology to rebuild the world?

The film develops a number of ideas about technology, but none are ever developed. It's also a muddle about who the main character is in the film. Depp and his A.I. version? The wife? The other scientist? It's not clear. They all have prominent roles in the story.

A film can be developed with multiple main characters. L.A. Confidential is a great example, but it's also a great example of story mechanics. Several main characters, but one story (about illusion, reality, and identity) and one plot (who's going to replace Mickey C, and what happened at the Night Owl Cafe?)

You don't find that kind of clarity in Transcendence. Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find and satisfy an audience often have flawed story mechanics, and not having a clearly defined central character is deadly. A film can be told with an ensemble that acts out the promise, it's just hard to do well and easy to do badly.

Helping an audience to transcend mundane reality is a basic goal of a good film. Having a main character the audience relates to or invests in and begins to share that character's narrative tension is a major part of how a good film helps its audience become absorbed in and share the story's journey to the fulflllment of its promise.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Franz Kafka Video Available on YouTube

I've created a video about the inner life of Franz Kafka using quotes from his writing. I was going to use a professional narrator, but the rough cut of the narration I recorded turned out to be visually interesting, so I used it.

The video features photos by Nancy Hill. It's available for viewing at

Franz Kafka was the author of several dark novels, including Amerika and The Castle, that he wanted destroyed on his death. The title of the piece, 'You Have No Know My Name,' came from that desire to not have his novels published.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Friday, February 21, 2014

My Name is Samuel Clemens, a Video about Mark Twain

I've created a video about Mark Twain and how he had to balance being Samuel Clemens, family man and a failure at business and investing, and Mark Twain, a literary star and speaker.

The video features photos by Nancy Hill and the voice over of Sam Mowry,

Mark Twain was the author of many popular novels, including Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

RoboCop Vs RoboCop: An Issue of Tone

RoboCop Vs RoboCop: An Issue of Tone

In screenwriting, a difficult issue for new writers to deal with is tone. A problem in many first scripts is a shift in tone that undercuts the impact of a story. A script with a comedic tone turns to slap stick humor at the climax. A dramatic story (realistic) becomes melodramatic (unrealistic).

The current reboot of RoboCop shows how two movies can have the same basic story and plot (man who becomes mostly robot struggles to retain his humanity) and, because of different tones, turn out to be very different movies.

The original RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, was both an action film and a satire about the media and corporate greed. We were asked to care about the main character and his struggle to hold on to his humanity but also to enjoy the visceral thrill as his actions to solve his own murder led him to take on both hard core criminals and his corporate masters.

The current RoboCop starts on a satiric note about American, robotic peace-keeping in Tehran, but then shifts to a realistic account (for a movie) of how a near-dead detective is rebuilt in a mostly robotic body, and the complications involved from both a standpoint of science, morality, and corporation machinations. It felt like this took about half the running time of the movie, and the drama was low-key.

The main character, deep into the movie, does sets about to solve his own murder, which makes the plot finally feel like it's getting into gear.

Unfortunately for the movie, since it's taken on a realistic tone, and it takes so long for the plot to hit a higher gear, the movie invites a realistic assessment on what's happening. The problem is, it's tough to sell the idea that Americans would be against robots enforcing laws, when so much has already been set up via computers (cameras scanning crowds and using facial recognition software, scanners automatically recording the license plate of every car that enters a community). Also, a central issue in the movie about congress refusing to allow robots in law enforcement comes across as artificial, because it feels like the issue has already been resolved.

Another problem for realism, when it comes out that a .50 caliber machine gun will take RoboCop apart, no one shoots him with that (or if they do, he survives); and none of the several thousand bullets expended in his direction hit him in the mouth.

The original RoboCop was fresh and bracing and true to itself as a story, the current RoboCop comes across as struggling to be realistic and failing to be true to itself.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Monday, February 10, 2014

I, Bill Notes on I, Frankenstein

I teach there's a difference between story and plot. Plot is about what happens, story is about why it matters.

When I saw that I, Frankenstein had a rating of 4% on Rotten Tomatoes (reviews by critics and movie goers), I wanted to see what had gone wrong.

The movie starts with a long distance shot in the mountains that looks ... fake, which becomes a standard for most of the visuals in the movie.

The movie also opens with Frankenstein's monster explaining his relationship to his creator, and why he killed Frankenstein's wife, and how Frankenstein tried to hunt him down, dying in the quest.

Instead of setting a story into motion with the introduction of a main character who embodies a story's promise, we simply have an introduction to a character.

When the monster returns to Germany to bury its creator, it is attacked by demons and rescued by gargoyles, who are fighting a war. So, before the purpose of the main character is set into motion toward some goal, instead the plot shifts to the conflict between these other characters. The upshot is that the monster doesn't want to be on either side of their war since he doesn't care what happens to humans.

And that holds for most of the movie, with the monster (named Adam by the gargoyle Queen), refusing to take sides, which also means the dramatic characters in the movie are the gargoyle Queen and the demon Prince, not the monster.

Adam does start to want something later in the film, to protect the scientist working for the demon prince, but that barely registers. He finally conveys his purpose in the last voice over of the film, that he will defend humanity from demons. He's picked a side.

The set up here is the same basic set up of John Carter, the Disney flop, with a main character who spends most of the film wanting to avoid siding with any of the warring factions on Mars.

Characters define themselves by what they want. A film with a main character who doesn't want something can be done, but it requires clear insight into storytelling. There's none of that in evidence in this movie.

The same group created Underworld, which had many of the same problems, but that film did manage to create a main character with goals, even while the first three films came across as a set up for a story the fourth film would act out. I gave up and didn't see the fourth.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Narration and The Book Thief

by Bill Johnson

The movie The Book Thief opens with narration by death, who adds some comments through the movie. In the film, a young girl is given up by her mother (who is possibly a communist or Jewish) to a German couple just before WWII. The girl is illiterate, but learns to read and then 'borrows' books from a local, well-off woman who lost a son in WWI.

I haven't read the book, but the movie has a golden-hued look that seems out of place with what is happening. The deeper problem is that, until the end of the film, it's not clear why it's narrated by death and what, ultimately, all the golden-hued action is meant to convey.

In the last line of the film, death admits to being haunted by the girl's death. To be a dramatic question for the story, the question of what about the death of her brother haunted the girl, and whether she could survive this haunting, would have given the film and death's narration a dramatic purpose. It's a question that would relate to other families in the film dealing with the deaths of loved ones in the war. But since this line comes at the end of the film, it's only then that the narration serves some dramatic purpose.

The reason people who write screenplays are told to NEVER use narration is that as a device, it lends itself to simply commenting on or explaining the action of a film, but not being dramatic unto itself. Narration as explanation, by its nature, tends to be dramatically flat; it's often the authors using characters to convey information the authors feel the audience needs.

An example of a dramatic use of narration is the film Days of Heaven, narrated by a young girl who doesn't understand what she's seeing, so her narration is dramatically interesting. What the audience sees happening is different that what she relates.

Another example of failed narration was in a horror film that was a remake of a Japanese horror film. In the movie, a new frequency is opened for cell phones, and via that frequency, the dead start returning to this world. The actors in the film all react to this event, but what the story is about is only revealed with the last line of narration, 'The dead had a stronger live to live than the living.' If that had been framed as a question at the beginning of the film, all the action would have had a purpose.

In films like this, actors are left to pose, because they aren't given characters to play. All the actors in The Book thief do a good job of posing, but they aren't given fully-realized characters to play.

Something else that's interesting about narration, even though screen writers are taught to avoid the technique, it's often used in popular films, Memento being a great example.

If you're going to use narration in a script, make sure it serves a dramatic purpose unto itself.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle, and Smashwords.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oscar Wilde, My Declarations

I've created a short piece about the creative life of Oscar Wilde using quotes and photos. Sam Mowry ( did the wonderful narration.

This is the 2nd video in an author series I'm creating; next up, Mark Twain.

I edited the video.