posted by Teresa Slack www.teresaslack.com
In the last week I watched two movies—True Grit (the new, Jeff Bridges version for all the John Wayne purists out there) and Country Strong with Gwyneth Paltrow. What do these movies have in common? Absolutely nothing. The point is not to review either but to explain what I learned from both, as far as storytelling, and how I can apply it to my own writing.
In this post I won’t even tell you what the movies are about. All that matters here is what I learned about character development—or the lack thereof—pacing, tension, and the good old art of storytelling.
I don’t remember the John Wayne version of True Grit. So I won’t discuss the failures of Jeff Bridges in the role of Rooster Cogburn. The poor guy had mighty big boots to fill. The True Grit I watched was more about the girl who hired him. She had a goal, a mission, and an incredibly large, logical motivation set into motion in the first scene.
Each scene flowed logically into the next. Each obstacle thrust in front of the heroine became larger and more impossible to overcome. As the story unfolded more and more obstacles arose, even after she seemingly overcame her opposition. I wasn’t encumbered with memories or comparisons of the original True Grit so I was free to enjoy the unfolding of the story and wait with anticipation for its satisfying conclusion.
I don’t blame Country Strong for not living up to the character of True Grit. It wasn’t supposed to. The only reason I compare the two is 1) they’re the only movies I’ve seen recently, and 2) it failed in every way that True Grit succeeded.
The heroine in Country Strong had equally big, heart wrenching issues. Huge, tangible, logical obstacles rose up from the word GO. Unfortunately the story did not deliver. My biggest problem with this movie was I had no one to root for. I thought I did in the first few scenes. Then that character would do an about-face and make me think; “What a jerk. You’re mad at X for doing the same thing you’re doing.”
As the movie progressed I kept thinking of that old saying: “There’s a five dollar fine for whining.” Every character in that movie ended up owing me five dollars, except for the guy who started out as the antagonist. By the end of the movie, he’s the only character I liked.
I know, I know. Country Strong was about real people with real issues. I have nothing against flawed characters. I can’t abide characters who aren’t. The characters in True Grit were plenty flawed. But the viewer still wanted them to succeed. With Country Strong I didn’t even care after a while. I kept forgetting the movie was on and leaving the room. Then I’d have to rewind to see what I missed.
I knew what I was getting when I turned it on. But come on. Give me something. Give me some grit, some motivation I understand, and characters I can root for. Don’t tell me they’re strong. Show me in the way True Grit did.