What’s So Funny?
I’ve always heard that movies rarely live up to the great book from which they originate. Often, when the movie is spectacular, I find it was written originally as a screenplay and not a book.
What I have noticed recently is that books with a sense of humor do not translate well to screenplays. Two authors come to mind: Richard Russo and Liane Moriarty.
Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Empire Falls, had wry humor throughout the story. In the television series, however, much of that was missing. I didn’t find myself laughing out loud like I did in the book. That’s disappointing. Still the series kept my interest. The characters, setting, and pace were all glorious. And the story was poignant and compelling.
The same was true of Russo’s Nobody Fool. Perhaps the humor in the book would have made the scenes too comical in the movie? In this case, the author and the screenwriter were the same so I assume he left out the humorous lines because he felt they would not work as well in viewing as in reading.
In the last few months I have been engrossed in books by Liane Moriarty. After reading Big Little Lies, I decided to try the HBO Series. Truly, it is wonderful . . . suspenseful, delightful characters and a storyline that builds to a heart-pounding ending. However, where did the humor go? As I read this book, I recall many laugh-out-loud moments. As I watch the series, none. Did I miss the funny lines?
Which brings me to the reason for this blog. Is it not possible to translate humor from a book to a screenplay? Does the script writer make that decision because it is too difficult or because it simply doesn’t work on the screen?
Big Little Lies works as both a book and a film series. But in my opinion, without the wry and clever humor of Moriarty, which is her signature, it loses something in the translation.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
As a writer of historical mysteries, I try to remain loyal to the details of the historical period I’m portraying. I use real settings with real characters, then insert fictitious characters with fictitious events to create the mystery.
Staying true to the facts of the historical period is fairly straightforward . . . until those facts change. You may wonder how historical facts can change. After all, they happened in the past and they’ve been documented. But historical facts can be altered based on new research and evidence.
So, what’s a writer to do? Case in point. My novel, Pure Lies, begins with a prologue in 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, where several witches are about to be hung. It was initially believed that they were hung from a tree atop Gallows Hill. In the last few weeks, we’ve come to learn that the hangings took place, not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom, on something called Proctor’s Ledge. Oh well, you think. Top, bottom, so what? Proctor’s Ledge is now the site of a Walgreens pharmacy. (Methinks there’s marketing opportunity here at Halloween!)
Interestingly enough, this actual site was pinpointed nearly a century ago, but research was lost to time and replaced by legends and misconceptions. Eventually the top of Gallows Hill became the “factual place of the hangings.” If I had known, might I have written the hangings onto the Ledge? Maybe. The location is not nearly as literarily romantic as the hanging tree at the top of Gallows Hill.
There have been other examples of history changing over time. For centuries we believed Pluto to be our outermost planet. Now it’s been downgraded to a dwarf planet and is one of 40 other dwarf planets. A bit of a disappointment for Planet 9.
One transformation that particularly bothered me was the reclassification of the most iconic of dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.” Since 1903, the scientific community has believed that the genus Brontosaurus was really the Apatosaurus. Now, after serious research, paleontologists provide conclusive evidence that the Brontosaurus is distinct from the Apatosaurus and has been reinstated as its own unique genus. Yippee!
And then there’s the case of the 15th century king, Richard III, whose portrayal in both English history and English literature has created ongoing debate. It was long thought that he died in ignominy and was buried in a crude grave in an unknown location. However, in 2012, archaeologists discovered his remains under a parking lot (not a Walgreens) and through forensic analysis learned that he suffered 11 injuries at or near the time of his death, indicating he died in battle. More to come, no doubt, as further analysis is done.
History is a dynamic and ever-changing discipline. As a novelist, fortunately, I can invoke artistic license and save myself the trouble of re-writing my books to conform to changing history. Whew.
When history evolves . . . what’s a writer to do?
March 25, 2021, will commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh several years ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect. For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
The dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle or an opposition.” Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. But conflict, in any form, is essential for a good story.
Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and can define the character’s character. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head–how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Do serious money problems cause him to drink more, abuse his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school-related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other-related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
In my role as Science Center director some years ago, my staff and I were tasked with developing a high-tech exhibition on smoking. Rather, a powerful way to demonstrate the dangers of smoking on the human body. In my research, I came across myriad forms of propaganda about smoking through advertising, first in magazines and newspapers, later on radio and television. One of the more prevalent means of marketing “smoking,” however, began in the thirties and forties (and continues today) in the movies.
Hollywood has always glamorized smoking (think Humphrey Bogart or James Dean) and, no doubt, perpetuated the myth that smoking was cool. As I dug deeper into this phenomenon, I found that Hollywood was very reluctant to cut smoking out of their movies, long after they knew the dangers. For one thing, cigarette companies paid the studios to “show” their product. (You’d see a pack of Marlboro on a side table.) For another, they felt it added to the glamor of the characters. Note: On-screen smoking in PG-13 films has doubled since 2010.
Hollywood has done us a disservice by minimizing or ignoring the dangers of smoking by displaying it in the movies. Making the practice “all right.” But what about history? As I watch the stories in the news about the tearing down of monuments, statues, and flags, I wondered about this very thing. What role does Hollywood play?
I wrote a novel about the Civil War. (Aha! Fiction writers may share the blame with Hollywood in perpetuating historical inaccuracies. A blog for another time.) In my research, I read fiction, non-fiction and, of course, indulged in movies about the subject. The Ken Burns series and book, The Civil War, epitomizes to me the true story, with accurate narrative and real photographs.
Armed with my research, I could watch Gone With the Wind and recognize the many inaccuracies of the film. But then there was the movie, Gettysburg. Reasonably accurate, I did notice one thing that stood out. The southern characters like Generals James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee were made very sympathetic and likeable. (Although I had my misgivings about General George Pickett. I didn’t like the actor!)
The point here is that when Hollywood displays characters as sympathetic, eloquent gentlemen, it is hard for the viewer to make the connection to historical treachery. Let’s not forget, these generals were committing treason. They fought against the union to preserve their way of life, a life that defended and preserved the practice of slavery.
Perhaps it would do writers well to think about the consequences of their portrayals of characters and events in their books and scripts. Are we doing a disservice to future generations by changing history for dramatic effect?