From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

blizzard

So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

necoast

And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

novembertiptoes

The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

stickseason

So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

plathariel

 

emersonessays

I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

existentialart

Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

theblob

Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

strangeadv2

It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

lovewhatyouwrite

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

attackcrabmonsters

Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

A Step-by-Step Journey–Or, Words of Wisdom from a Fictional Minor-League Catcher

In the 1988 romantic comedy Bull Durham, there is one sequence when veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis pulls aside the young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh to offer words of advice.  Davis knows talent when he sees it, and he knows that LaLoosh is headed, ultimately, for the Major Leagues.  Though raw, and with much to learn, the young pitcher has a golden arm, blessed with a rocket-like fastball and an off-the-table curve.  He has future superstar written all over him.

aloosh

 

But he’s arrogant, hot-tempered, immature, and, Davis is sure, not at all prepared to handle the fishbowl lifestyle of the Major Leagues.  And so on a road trip, as their minor-league team, the Durham Bulls, gears up for a new opponent, Davis instructs LaLoosh on the fine art of the interview.

crashdavis

 

“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” he says.  “You’re gonna have to study them.  You’re gonna have to know them.  They’re your friends.  Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.'”

As LaLoosh does indeed write this down, he says, “‘Got to play’ . . . it’s pretty boring.”

Davis is quick to respond:  “‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point.  Write it down.”

durhaminterview

 

He provides two other canned responses to interview questions, as well, both as cliched and dull as the first.  Indeed–how many times have we heard this oft-repeated phrase:  “One day at a time; one game at a time . . .”

“So, are you looking forward to playing the Yankees next month?”

“Next month?  Next month?  This is this month!  We’re not even thinking of the Yankees.  Who are they?  We gotta take this one game at a time.  If we start looking ahead to next month, the series against the Yankees won’t even matter because we’ll have lost the next few anyway.”

onegameatatime

 

It’s frustrating for the interviewer and the audience alike.  We listen to this, and think, “Can’t they ever be honest?  Of course they look ahead.  They have to.  Anybody would.”

tellingtruthmakebelieve

 

But maybe, just maybe, it’s not always just a tired cliche.  Maybe sometimes, they’re actually telling the truth.

**********************

Have you ever been there?  You’re writing a novel, or a memoir, or any long work of literature, and you know that just down the road, perhaps as near as the next chapter, a major development beckons.  The protagonist will face a monumental challenge, a huge shift in the plot will occur, perhaps someone instrumental to the story will die.  Regardless of the specifics, it is a crucial development, one of the most important sequences of the entire work.

majordevelopmentcrossroads

 

But it’s not the chapter you’re working on . . .

Speaking of, the chapter you are working on is relatively minor.  There are no groundbreaking events, no epiphanies or “aha” moments, no twists and turns that will create a sea change for the rest of the story.  It’s a quiet chapter, understated, a small hors d’oeuvre before the meal is served, an undercard to kick off an evening where everyone in the audience is breathlessly awaiting the main event.

horsdeouevres

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers,  there were certainly moments just like this.  There is a short chapter where Ryan Swinton walks off from the group, needing some space to think and reflect.  Later on, toward the climax of the novel, Marc Kuslanski has a similar conversation with himself, exploring the troubling reality of paradoxes, that not everything can be rationally and neatly explained.

paradox

 

It’s precisely at such times as these that Crash Davis’s advice to his young teammate most applies.  Because–if we rush through the little scenes, the reflective and subdued chapters, if we slap them together without much effort out of sheer impatience to move forward, it won’t even matter what that earth-shattering revelation will be in chapter 29, or how our protagonist will manage to survive the dangers at book’s end.  Regardless of how mesmerizing the big scenes are, they are built, in large part, by the “small” chapters and interludes that precede them.

quietmoments

 

I have found that, when writing a novel, the task sometimes seems so large, so daunting–often literally taking years to complete–that it’s dangerous thinking too far ahead.  Granted, there needs to be some sense of direction.  I know, for me, I like to have an idea where I’m going before I begin the first chapter, and at times, during the course of writing the story, if an idea strikes me for a scene several chapters off, I’ll jot it down to make sure I don’t forget it.

ideawritedowndontforget

 

But if I start worrying too much about scenes as yet unwritten, developments around the bend, as it were, if I spend too much time stressing about specifics five or ten chapters hence, then I am in real trouble.  Suddenly the scenes I am working on become harder to write, and I find it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.  I may even get bogged down with doubts, wondering if the novel as a whole will be worthwhile or just some disastrous literary flop.

selfdoubt

 

Indeed, if I am about to begin chapter 17, as I am in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, even as I write this post, I need to focus exclusively on chapter 17.  Not chapter 18, or chapter 19, or chapter 26.  Even more specific than that, I need to focus on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph.  For, when it’s all said and done (a fitting description in a post talking about an old cliche!), a story is indeed built one word at a time, one chapter at a time.

The Yankees next month?  They can wait.

yankees

 

Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Pausing for a Look–Over the Rainbow

So . . . which scene is it for you?

The tornado sequence, perhaps, filmed in atmospheric black-and-white, and no doubt the cause of countless nightmares for young children throughout the decades?

tornado

 

Or maybe it’s the magical moment when Dorothy first enters Oz, as the monochrome of black-and-white suddenly gives way to a vibrant palette of color.

enteringoz

 

Not quite, you say?  Then how about the legendary Wizard of Oz himself being exposed for the fraud he is, hiding behind the curtain?

ozbehindcurtain

 

But of course, who can forget the Silver Screen’s most iconic villain, The Wicked Witch of the West, melting away?  “I’m melting, I’m melting!” is such a famous line, it has been mimicked and re-created many times over on both stage and screen in the years since.

wickedwitch

 

meltingwitch

 

Indeed.  There are many unforgettable scenes in The Wizard of Oz–arguably the most beloved motion picture in Hollywood history.  There are so many such scenes in the 1939 classic, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that, at first blush, it may seem impossible to choose just one as a favorite.

lfrankbaum

 

But for me, there is one sequence from the movie that stands apart, not only as my favorite scene in The Wizard of Oz, but one of my favorite scenes of all time, anywhere, from any film or TV show–the “Over the Rainbow” scene, featuring the film’s heroine, Dorothy Gale, and her dog, Toto.  The irony is–the sequence was very nearly removed during the cutting process.

overtherainbowscene1

 

Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t depict houses flying in the wind, witches soaring through the night on broomsticks, or cowardly lions and tin men and talking, walking scarecrows.

scarecrow

 

The “Over the Rainbow” scene occurs just five minutes into the movie.  Studio executive Louis B. Mayer and producer Mervyn LeRoy both thought it should be deleted because, they argued, it “slowed down the picture.”  If not for the sturdy resistance on the part of others associated with The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow,” the signature song of Judy Garland’s career, most likely would have withered and died.

garlandovertherainbow

 

After Dorothy is unable to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her about an unpleasant run-in she and Toto had (“Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” her aunt snaps), she wanders off into the barnyard, loyal Toto at her side.

dorothyauntem

 

“Some place where there isn’t any trouble,” Dorothy muses.  “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?  There must be.  It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train.  It’s far, far away.  Behind the moon, beyond the rain . . .”

And here she begins to sing of a place “over the rainbow way up high,” where all your “troubles melt like lemon drops.”

beginningovertherainbow

 

It must be pointed out that Mayer and LeRoy were right about one thing.  The “Over the Rainbow” sequence does in fact slow the picture down.  I would argue, however, that this effect makes The Wizard of Oz a better movie, and a far more memorable one.

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When the adrenaline rush and creative maelstrom of a novel’s first draft gives way to the laborious and painstaking process of revision and rewriting, we often delete far more than we add.  And that’s the way it should be.  In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King suggests authors should be able to cut at least 10 percent of their total word count from a first draft.  First drafts are generally padded, bloated things, gorged and made fat with too much description, too much repetition, and chock-full of sentences, paragraphs, entire scenes just begging to be tossed into the pit of discarded excess.

firstdraft

 

It’s natural, when trimming the bulging waistline of a first draft, to look for scenes that slow down the action of the story, that seem to lack relevance  or that do not advance the plot.  And most of the time, such scenes should indeed go.  But sometimes . . . yes, sometimes, there are exceptions.

The Eye-Dancers, for example, is a novel told through the point of view of four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–and one of my primary goals when I wrote the story was to enable readers to get into the mind of each character, get to know him, and, hopefully, root for him.  There are several “slower” scenes where the boys talk among themselves or where one of them wanders off by himself to think, ponder over his problems, and try to figure out his place in the universe.

placeintheuniverse

 

While it’s true action sequences and scenes that serve to advance the plot should and do reveal aspects of character, they cannot capture the thoughts, fears, aspirations, dreams a character might have in a quieter moment.  Nor can they portray an everyday scene, where we can witness the characters interacting over events that are mundane and normal as opposed to earth-shattering.  Without such scenes, little islands of stillness amid the roller-coaster ride of action, intrigue, and death-defying chase sequences, we cannot pause long enough to know and like (or dislike, as the case may be) each character over the course of the story.

islandsofstillness

 

***************

When the forward momentum of The Wizard of Oz pauses, just long enough for Dorothy to sing “Over the Rainbow,” we as the viewers are introduced to one of the primary themes of the movie–magic, fantasy, the promise of a place far, far away bursting with color and life and sights to stir and astound the senses.  We get a foreshadowing of Oz itself, of the quest Dorothy and her friends-in-waiting will undertake.

emeraldcityofoz

 

And, perhaps most important of all, we get a glimpse of the girl herself.  We share in her dreams, her wishing upon a star if you will, her ability to see and imagine beyond the nondescript reality of her daily life.

This was not lost on history.  On June 22, 2004, sixty-five years after The Wizard of Oz debuted in theaters and exactly thirty-five years removed from Judy Garland’s death, the American Film Institute voted “Over the Rainbow” as the greatest movie song of all time.

afilist

 

So the next time you’re sweating over the edits of your second draft and are all too eager to cut a scene that does not push the action along, take a breath, read it again, and reconsider.

Maybe, just maybe, the scene in question will transport your readers to a land “heard of once in a lullaby,” where “happy little bluebirds fly.” where the “skies are blue,” and “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

bluebird

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?

flippages

 

When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.

hitch

 

Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.

scream

 

Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.

toilet

 

However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.

runningaway

 

However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.

batesmotelatnight

 

And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 

stolenmoney

 

But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.

mansion

 

The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.

normanwiththefood

 

Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.

stuffedbirds

 

He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.

normancharming

 

 

normantaxidermy

 

“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.

eatslikebird

 

“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.

normanscowl

 

“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”

sheneedsme

 

The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.

marionbecomingconcerned

 

She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”

normaninparlor

 

Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.

shower

 

*************

Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.

boyishsmile

 

But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.

lurkingbeneath

 

If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.

***************

Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.

rollercoastersuspense

 

You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.

insidebrain

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

It’s A Wonderful (Award)

In Frank Capra’s enduring classic It’s A Wonderful Life, some of the most well-known and memorable scenes feature Clarence, the bumbling angel who has yet to earn his wings.  Clarence is assigned the task of trying to help the movie’s hero, George Bailey, realize that his life is worth living.

itsawonderfullife

 

clarenceandgeorge

 

To achieve this, the angel restructures the very fabric of reality, and allows George to see what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.  Clarence’s brainstorm succeeds–and George does indeed come to understand that he’s really had a wonderful life.

lifeworthliving

 

But the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life, while not as fantastic or mind-bending, offers the kind of feel-good (some would say corny) moment Capra became famous for.  Corny or not, it remains one of my all-time favorite scenes.

One of the main reasons George Bailey had been in such dire straits to begin with, and why Clarence the angel’s services were needed, concerns a weighty matter of lost money for the family business–the Bailey Building and Loan.  If George can’t find the money, he will go to jail.

But upon returning home from his extraordinary adventure with Clarence, seeing the bank examiner there ready to deliver the grim news, and hugging his children, thankful to be alive and a real person again, despite the pall hanging over him, George is surprised when his wife, Mary, steps inside and tells him, “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!”

cominghome

 

One by one, friends, neighbors, residents of the town stream in after Mary, donating whatever money they can spare to help George pay off his debt.  Within minutes, it becomes clear that, not only will the debt be paid and prison avoided, but, in the words of Harry Bailey, George’s younger brother, George has become “the richest man in town.”

money

 

The kind of community spirit and support depicted in this classic film is, in very real ways, kept alive through the WordPress community.  I can’t thank all of you enough for your ongoing encouragement and support of The Eye-Dancers blog, and for continuing to read and comment on these ramblings of mine. You are the best.

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I want to thank Sherri for nominating me for The Shauny Award.  If you’ve never checked out Sherri’s wonderful blog (or even if you have!),  A View From My Summerhouse, I hope you will take a few moments now.  It’s a great place to stop in for a virtual visit, so please take your time!

Before accepting The Shauny Award, I want to thank two other bloggers for recently nominating The Eye-Dancers for two awards–The Sunshine Award and The Dragon’s Loyalty Award.  I was lucky enough to have been nominated for these awards previously, but thanks so much to Dear Kitty. Some blog and to Janice at jemsbooks for the nominations!  After pulling up a chair at Sherri’s blog, I hope you will visit both of these great blogs as well.

I also wanted to take this time to thank Teagan Geneviene.  Teagan was the winner of the recent Eye-Dancers promotion, and she was gracious enough to include me in her fabulous blog, inviting me to participate in her very fun and creative Three Ingredients serial.   Please check out Teagan’s site–you will be glad you did!

And, while you’re at it, I hope you’ll buy her book Atonement, Tennessee, available on Amazon . . .

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shaunyaward

The Rules for The Shauny Award  are quite straightforward:

Show Humanity, Show Love, Be Yourself, Don’t Be Others, Don’t Gossip,

and Share the Love by giving This Award to 10 others.

As readers of The Eye-Dancers blog probably already know, I have a penchant for breaking the rules.  (Kind of like the maxim to never, ever split the infinitive, and how the passive voice should be avoided!)

As such, I am going to break the rules again, simple as they are, for The Shauny Award.  Rather than narrowing the nominations to 10, I would like to nominate every single follower of The Eye-Dancers site.  You are the number-one reason blogging is so much fun for me, and I hope all of you will accept this award.

I may not have been about to jump off a bridge, as old George Bailey was in 1946, but when I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I was hesitant, not at all sure how my posts would be received.  From the first, you all made me feel accepted and welcomed, and for that I thank you.

Because of you, It’s A Wonderful Blogging Life.

end

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Exception That Proves the Rule (Or, That Is One Spellbinding Shark Tale . . .)

The mega-summer blockbuster has become a trademark in Hollywood.  Each year, as the summer season approaches, there are a select few movies that receive tremendous amounts of hype and fanfare.  It’s been this way for nearly forty years now–and the film that perhaps started it all was Jaws.  Based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, Jaws was hyped as no movie before it ever had been, and it didn’t disappoint.  From the time of its release, early in the summer of 1975, to this day, Steven Spielberg’s shark thriller remains one of the all-time classics–and one of my favorite movies.

jaws

 

But what makes Jaws great?  When you think of the movie, what stands out?  Perhaps it’s the opening sequence, where a young woman dives into the ocean, and as twilight descends, becomes the first victim of the Great White that is roaming the waters off of Amity Island.  Maybe it’s the unforgettable musical score by John Williams, which has a life, and energy, all its own.  Maybe it’s the interplay between the three protagonists–Brody, the beleaguered chief of police; Matt Hooper, the marine biologist flown in to help investigate the attacks; and Quint, the hardened seaman who has an Ahab-like quest to kill the shark.

brody

 

hooper

 

quint

 

It could be any of these, or more, that stand out, and with good reason.  There are many strengths to this film.

But the one moment, the defining scene in the movie, for me, has always been the long speech that Quint delivers while he, Brody, and Hooper are aboard the Orca, Quint’s vessel, hunting for the Great White.

To back up–to this point in the movie, we have witnessed several shark attacks, the local community is in a state of disbelief and panic, and the friction that has developed between Quint and Brody, and especially Quint and Hooper, is palpable.  But the scene in which Quint delivers his monologue begins with a dose of male bonding.

malebonding

 

Quint and Hooper, temporarily setting aside their differences, compare “war wounds”–cuts and bruises acquired over the years, as Brody looks on, amused.

warwounds2

 

warwounds

 

This is the backdrop for one of the Silver Screen’s most memorable speeches.

***************

When I took a Fiction Workshop as a graduate student, the professor who taught the class had several literary pet peeves.  One of them was lengthy, drawn-out monologues.

“People simply don’t talk that way,” he said.  “Listen to conversations.  Rarely does one person ramble on endlessly, apart from a lecture or a formal speech.  With very few exceptions, there is nearly always a give-and-take.”

Certainly, in The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would love to monopolize his share of conversations and expostulate on the theories of the universe.  And over the course of the novel, he certainly does offer a few lengthy explanations of the predicament in which he, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton find themselves.  But these are limited in number, and often interrupted by another character’s comments or observations.  Nowhere in The Eye-Dancers does Marc ramble on and on for paragraphs on end.

Generally, having a character monopolize a conversation to that extent will backfire.  It slows down the story, dulls the dialogue with the other characters, and very often provides much more information than we need.

boringspeech2

 

But every now and then . . . when the stars align just so and a story calls for it . . . there is indeed a time and a place.

Once such time, and one such place, occurs in the cabin of the Orca, as evening sets in over the Atlantic . . .

***************

Quint, serious, somber, begins to tell his story . . .

He tells Brody and Hooper that he was on a secret mission on the USS Indianapolis, near the end of The Second World War, when disaster struck.

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief,” he says. . . . “Eleven hundred men went into the water.  Vessel went down in twelve minutes.”  Here, the shark hunter pauses, gathering his thoughts.  Already we as the audience can see his mind is miles away, in the Pacific, three decades ago . . .

quinttelling

 

“Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour,” he resumes.  “Tiger–thirteen footer.  You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief?  You tell by lookin’ at the dorsal to the tail.”  Another pause, as the camera zooms in on Quint’s face.  His expression is calm, deliberate, but there is something in his eyes, as he remembers . . .

He explains the mission he was on was so secret, no distress signal went out.  He and the one-thousand-plus sailors with him were stranded, in the middle of the ocean.  They weren’t even listed as overdue for an entire week.  The camera pans to Brody, and then back to Quint, who takes a drink.

“Very first light, Chief,” he says, “the sharks come cruisin’.  So we formed ourselves into tight groups. . . . And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark would go away.  Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya, right into your eyes.  You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes . . .  When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’.  Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white, and then . . . and then ya hear that terrible, high-pitched screamin’.  The ocean turns red and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and rip you to pieces.”

Again, Quint pauses, as the camera pans to Brody and then Hooper, staring at the old seaman, wide-eyed, rapt.  Quint says in that first dawn, they had already lost a hundred men to the sharks.

quintspeechhooperlookson

 

“On Thursday mornin’, Chief,” he goes on, “I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. . . . I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake ‘im up.  Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top.  Up-ended.  Well–he’d been bitten in half below the waist.”

Another pause as the words, the images, sink in, the pace measured.  And again we see Brody and Hooper looking on.

quinteyes

 

Quint then explains that at noon on the fifth day, adrift at sea, a passing aircraft happened to see the survivors.  Finally, rescue–for the sailors who had survived.

“Eleven hundred men went into the water,” he says.  “Three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest . . .”

When Quint finishes his speech, Brody and Hooper mesmerized by the story they’ve just heard, there comes the haunting, lonely call of a whale.  It is the perfect summation of the scene, a final exclamation point for the mood Quint’s monologue has created.

Within minutes, literally, all hell breaks loose, as the shark and its pursuers engage in an all-out war.

allhell

 

huntin

 

But for me, it is this scene, this speech (masterfully delivered by actor Robert Shaw, who plays Quint and wrote the speech himself) that defines the greatness of Jaws.

***********

If, in the story you are writing, one of your characters is yearning to deliver a Quint-like tour de force, it is probably best to show restraint.  The speech that brings goose bumps and causes readers (or viewers) to inch forward, to the edge of their seat, is rare–like a precious jewel buried beneath a mound of dirt.  There are many more misses than hits.

hiddenjewel

 

But as with nearly every other “rule” of good storytelling, there are exceptions.

It is our job as writers to recognize these exceptions when they occur and use them to maximum effect.

A good shark tale should not go untold . . .

shark!

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Believe or Not to Believe . . . (Or, How Far Can You Run?)

Whenever you produce something, and enough people see it, there are bound to be critics.  The world’s great masterpieces are not universally loved.  And Oscar-winning movies elicit a wide range of opinions.

So it was one day, several years ago, when, during a free moment at a former job of mine, I had a disagreement with a coworker named Rob.  Rob was a good, reliable employee, neat, orderly, someone who painstakingly dotted his I’s and crossed his T’s.

tie

 

He had an event planner on his desk that was always filled in months in advance.  If you were to look up the term “detail-oriented” online, you might just see Rob’s picture staring back at you.

I liked Rob.  He and I got along well–except when it came to movies.  We agreed every now and then, but most of the time we were the amateur version of Siskel and Ebert–always finding ways to contradict each other.  And on that particular day, he took aim at one of my all-time favorite films, Forrest Gump.

“It’s the worst movie I ever saw!” he exclaimed.  “Totally idiotic.  The guy runs across America.  For three years!”  (Actually, it was, according to Forrest, three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours, but who’s counting?)  “A superhero couldn’t do that!  It’s not humanly possible.  It’s completely illogical and stupid.”

forrestbeard

 

I tried to explain that on many levels, Forrest Gump, based on the novel of the same name by Winston Groom,  is a fairy tale.  Not everything in the movie can be, or should be, taken literally–which is one of the many aspects of the film I love.

forrestrunsawaycar

 

On the one hand it is the humorous, wacky, larger-than-life story of a man who always finds himself at the center of history-making events.  But on the other hand, it is a probing character study, a very personal story about Forrest and the people closest to him.  It is a rich, layered movie that never gets old, no matter how many times I watch it.

Rob wouldn’t hear of it.  He was able to accept many of the film’s eccentric qualities and plot lines (“I liked the ping pong,” he admitted), but Forrest running across America?  That’s where he drew the line.  Much like Marc Kuslanski, Rob could not, would not, get past the logic/commonsense divide.  No one can run across America for three solid years.  For him, the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any fantasy was shattered during that scene.  It ruined the story for him, and, as much as I disagreed with him, it did get me thinking about the kind of speculative storytelling that stretches and challenges the imagination.  How do authors, screenwriters, television producers, creators, present fantasy in a way that most people can digest as believable and “real”?

void

 

For me, the “running sequence” in Forrest Gump works beautifully.  It fits the theme, tone, and style of the movie, and enhances the story.  But why?  How?  And, while there will always be some readers (or viewers) like Rob, who cannot take the leap you as the storyteller want them to take, what elements need to be in place to portray an “impossible” or improbable scene in a believable way, a way that an audience can enjoy despite (or perhaps because of) the logic gap that so angered Rob?

I believe the answer lies, as it so often does, in character.  Consider, for instance, the scene that precedes the Forrest Gump running sequence.  A constant theme throughout the movie is Forrest’s unwavering love for Jenny, his one and only girl.  From the time they were children, he and Jenny went together “like peas and carrots.”

forrestjennykids2

 

forrestjennykids

 

Except–Jenny grew up, a very troubled person, and wandered the country, searching for a meaning and peace she never seemed to find.  She would occasionally cross paths with Forrest over the years, but usually they were miles apart.  He loved her, wanted to be her boyfriend, as he openly admitted, but she never seriously considered his offer.  “Forrest, you don’t even know what love is,” she tells him, assuming his low IQ prevents him from understanding and knowing. . . .

But then, after years of separation, Jenny returns, spends some time with Forrest at his home.  He calls it “the happiest time” of his life.

forrestjennyreunite2

 

forrestandjennyreunited

 

At one point, he asks her to marry him.  “I’d make a good husband, Jenny,” he says.  She agrees that he would, but when he asks her why she doesn’t love him, she just shakes her head.

“I’m not a smart man,” he says.  “But I know what love is.”

jennyflowers

 

That night, for the first time, Jenny comes to him not just as a friend, but as a lover, telling him she does love him.  For Forrest Gump, this night is the one he has always dreamed of, the moment he has always longed for.  But then it all comes crashing down, a house of cards strewn and wrecked by a gust of wind.

In the morning, while he sleeps, Jenny leaves.  Without a word.  When we see Forrest next, there is no dialogue, no music, just a series of shots zooming in on him, silent.  We can feel his loneliness, his heartbreak.  From the crest of the highest, most exhilarating wave, he has fallen into the depths.  So what does he do?

In Forrest’s own words, during a voice-over that begins the memorable running-across-America sequence . . .

“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.  So I ran to the end of the road.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County.  And I figured, since I’d run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.  And that’s what I did. . . . For no particular reason, I just kept on going.  I ran clear to the ocean.  And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.  When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going. . . .”

And for several minutes, we watch Forrest, now with long, uncut hair and a beard that would make even Santa green with envy, run through pristine mountain hollows and along winding country lanes.

panoramarun

 

Many things happen during the scene, which has its share of zany humor and entertaining encounters.  But at its heart, it is about Forrest dealing with Jenny’s departure.  “I’d think a lot” (as he ran), he tells us in a voice-over.  He’d think about his mother, his friend Lieutenant Dan, but, “most of all, I’d think about Jenny.”

And when, after more than three years, he finally stops running, he says:  “My momma always said, ‘You got to put the past behind you before you can move on.’  And I think that’s what my running was all about.”

forreststopsrunning

 

Yes.  A three-year run across America is pretty far-fetched.  And yes, it would be near-impossible to do, on so many levels.  But we can overlook these things because the scene is, at its core, a response to something we can all relate to–hurt, rejection, a lifelong dream evaporating through your fingers like a hundred tiny pebbles scattering to the earth.  Needing to find a way to cope with loss.  Coming to terms with something that leaves a sour, bitter taste in your mouth every time you swallow.  It’s a fair assumption that none of us has ever run across a continent for three-plus years.  But we’ve all experienced the feelings that motivate this title character to journey on his fairy-tale marathon.

And that, I think, is the axle around which everything turns.  Certainly, when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, a story of parallel worlds and ghost girls that invade dreams, I was taking the risk every speculative fiction writer does–creating a story that might come across as too fantastic, too impossible, too “out there.”

parallelworlds

 

But for every quantum leap across the void, for every haunted dream sequence, for every step further into a mysterious and alien world, there is also a quiet, small moment when one of the main characters laughs at a joke, or shares a childhood memory, or tackles an insecurity that has been gnawing away at him for years.

Forrest Gump, I think, would agree.  If we can create characters readers will root for, care about, become invested in, we can then, boldly and imaginatively, fly them across the empty, black reaches of space, or transport them through endless blue voids, or have them go on a journey to another dimension entirely.

parallel2

 

So, all these years later, Rob, I still disagree with you.

Great fictional characters, characters we believe in, can take us anywhere.

galaxy

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rear Window Point of View

Some stories grab you by the throat, plunge you in from the get-go, and never let up, sprinting frenetically to the finish line at a speed so blistering your head spins as you race along for the ride.  An old-school action movie, perhaps, or a thriller that scarcely pauses to catch its breath . . .

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had to Be Murder,” is definitely not such a story.

rearwindowpromo

 

From the opening sequence where we view, along with main character L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by James Stewart), the apartment complex across the street, the film is decidedly unrushed.

apartment

 

It takes its time, the plot unfolding slowly, allowing the viewer to ease into the story line and characters, the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely stroll along a country lane.  This is not to suggest that Rear Window is dull.  Far from it.  It is widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished movies, and has long been a personal favorite of mine.

The story centers around Jefferies, confined to a wheelchair, his left leg broken and in a cast, suffered while photographing an auto race accident.

wheelchair

 

He has been whiling away the time in his small New York City apartment, with little to do except spy on his neighbors across the way.  For a man of action like Jefferies, whose job routinely takes him to some of the world’s most remote and dangerous locales, the inactivity is like a slow, torturous death sentence.

We meet his neighbors, right along with him.  The entire film is shown from Jefferies’ perspective.  When we see his neighbors, we see only what he sees.  We are never actually in their apartments.  We, like Jefferies, are spying, voyeurs, peering in through back windows at the private rituals and arguments and parties of the Other.

spy

 

From this point of view, we meet a dancer whom Jefferies calls Miss Torso, who is continually prancing around her room in a bikini and other various states of undress.  She practices her dance steps in full view of Jefferies, who eagerly takes in the view.

misstorso

 

We meet a single woman Jefferies nicknames Miss Lonelyheart.  One evening we spy her entertaining an imaginary guest at her table, before breaking down in tears.  We, like Jefferies, question whether or not we should be witnessing such private acts.  But we do, and we are.

misslonelyhearts

 

And we also meet a bickering married couple, the Thorwalds.  The husband is a salesman, the wife is unwell, spending her days in bed.  Jefferies can’t help but notice their quarrels.  Their flat is just across from his.

murderwife

 

While me meet the neighbors, we also enter into Jefferies’ personal life.  He has problems of his own, apart from the broken leg.  His girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite, wants to get married.

stewartandkelly

 

Jefferies tells her it wouldn’t be a good idea.  He doesn’t want to settle into a comfortable city life taking photos at her fashion events.  And he doesn’t believe she is cut out to be the wife of a traveling photographer who spends much of his time in rustic, back-country places.  He tells her it’s not the life for her–neither of them would be happy in the other’s world.

One night, after an argument with Lisa about this very issue, Jefferies spies the Thorwalds in the apartment across the way having another of their fights.  Later, after midnight, there is a scream and a crash and a single cry of, “Don’t!” and then all is quiet.  Jefferies observes Thorwald leave the apartment three times during the night, each time carrying his salesman’s case.  Something seems amiss.  As the days pass, Jefferies, collecting various clues as he continues to keep an ever-present eye on Thorwald, believes that the salesman has murdered his wife.

murderer

 

But even here, the film takes its time.  We never leave Jefferies’ apartment.  We learn what he learns, at the same pace he does.   The movie continues to build in momentum, slowly, allowing us to taste every nuance, pause at every twist and turn of the plot.  Along the way, we further delve into the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart, along with other neighbors.  The time of year, midsummer, with an oppressive heat wave, only serves to emphasize the unhurried pace of the plot.  Everyone is hot, the air is thick with humidity, muggy like soup.  Nothing will be rushed.

There is a method to the madness, of course.  Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is taking his viewers by the hand, and leading them, gently, softly, up a winding mountain back road.  We have to solve the mystery right along with the protagonist, and while we do, we get to know him, his personality, his insecurities, his faults, and his idiosyncracies, right along with those of his neighbors’.  It is a rich, layered story, strangely comfortable in spite of the potential horror taking place across the way.  It makes us want to settle in, stay for a while, and lose ourselves in its world.

spying

 

It also makes the ending, a confrontation between Thorwald and Jefferies, stand out in bold relief to the rest of the film.  Everything has been leading up to this–the crash of the cymbals after the slow, melodic dance.  The bold, brutal display of violence after two hours of merely hinting at it.  It is a climax earnestly won, an eruption of suspense perfectly timed.

ending

 

It is also a very good reminder.

Sometimes, when in the process of writing a novel, or even a shorter work, it is easy to fall into the finishing-too-quickly trap.  If you’re in chapter 21, and you have big plans for chapter 22, the natural temptation is to cut that last scene in chapter 21 just a little short, the eagerness, anticipation, and excitement over the big chapter to come simply too much to resist.  I know I fell into this mind-set at times during the writing of The Eye-Dancers.

While every chapter in a novel is important, there are, naturally, certain chapters that stand out as truly crucial, the linchpins upon which everything else rests.  When I was nearing a “linchpin” chapter, I often had to remind myself to slow down, and give the present chapter the attention it deserved.  If I rushed the current chapter, then the impact of the “big” chapter that followed would be minimized due to the faults and sloppiness of the chapter that preceded it.  In such moments, when the temptation to rush was at its strongest, I would think of old L.B. Jefferies in his wheelchair, watching, waiting, slow, slow . . . and I would take a deep breath, and carry on, careful not to race through.

takeyourtime

 

And while the major chapters, the big fight scenes, the incredible time warps all serve as the “wow”scenes in any story, it is the little chapters, the quiet sequences that often move us and help us to relate to the story and the characters who populate it.  A short conversation between friends.  An inside joke between a husband and wife.  A moment of introspection as your main character relaxes on the sofa, watching an old rerun and sipping tea.  Scenes like this add nuance, substance, and texture to the story.  They are the peeks behind the curtain, the herbs and spices that bring out the rich, hearty flavor beneath the surface.  They are the hidden gems at the bottom of the pile, the rare finds at the back of the store.

And they offer us, in their shy, softspoken manner, The Rear Window point of view.

pov

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Character Interludes (Or, “Yo, Marie! We Need to Talk . . .”)

When most people think of Rocky Balboa, they think of larger-than-life boxing matches, grueling slugfests against the likes of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.  And with good reason.  Rocky, of course, is a fighter, and the movies are built around the pugilistic perils of his career.

rockycreed

 

The Rocky brand, too, has been somewhat tarnished over the years due to the excessive number of sequels.  The sequels have, for the most part, been Box Office gold, but at the same time, they have relegated Rocky to something of a caricature.  With each new installment, it seemed the level of predictability and corniness increased, and Rocky’s opponents became more and more imposing.  Boxers such as Clubber Lang in Rocky III and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV were nearly on par with comic book supervillains.

But go back, if you will, to the original.  When Rocky premiered in 1976, Sylvester Stallone was a no-name writer/actor who had to fight hard just to play the title character in his screenplay.  The film studio wanted Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford.  Stallone stubbornly demanded the role.  Obviously it was the right call.

When audiences were introduced to Rocky Balboa, they weren’t sure what to expect.  The Rocky formula didn’t exist yet.  Stallone had a blank slate with which to work.  He decided to devote much of the first half of the movie to Rocky’s life.  We see Balboa in a smoke-filled ring to start the film, a club fighter, short on skill, but with a fierce heart and a hard punch.  We see Rocky drifting aimlessly around the slums of Philadelphia, bouncing his ever-present rubber ball and wearing his black, finger-less gloves.  He works the docks as a loan shark.

rockyloanshark

 

He hangs out on street corners.  He likes a shy young woman who barely gives him the time of day.

adrienne

 

He’s friends with her older brother, cranky, temperamental bristly-edged Paulie.

paulie

 

As we watch the film unfold, we generally like Rocky.  He seems like a decent enough guy, down on his luck, just struggling to scrape by and earn a living.  But, this early on, we’re still not sure.  The movie is still young.  Maybe the guy will turn out to be a creep.

This is where a pivotal scene takes place. . . .

It’s night.  Rocky passes a street corner as a bunch of young men heckle him.  He ignores them, clearly used to this kind of thing, unfazed by it.  But amid the hecklers, there is a young girl named Marie, maybe twelve or thirteen years old.  She joins in, hurling curses at Rocky.

He instantly leads her away from the throng, and asks her if those “yo-yos” back at the corner taught her to swear like that.  “Don’t you never talk like that again,” he admonishes her.  They walk down the darkened city streets, toward Marie’s apartment.

rockyandmarie

 

Rocky tries to give her some advice.  He explains that if she continues to hang around with the wrong crowd and talk like a sewer, she’ll get a reputation.  And twenty years down the road, when people ask, “Hey, do you remember that girl Marie, they’ll say, ‘No, who was she?'”  But then they’ll bring up her bad reputation, and the people will remember.  “You see,” the Italian Stallion says. “They don’t remember you.  They remember the rep.”

When they arrive at the girl’s apartment, she seems to appreciate Rocky’s advice.  She acts like she gets it.  But then, when he’s about to turn and walk away, she says, “Hey, Rocky.  Screw you, creepo!”  And she gives him an obscene gesture before heading inside.

marieobscene

 

Rocky just stares after her, and then, to himself, he says, “Yeah.  Who are you, creepo?  Who are you to give advice to anyone?”  And he walks off, into the night.

Despite doing nothing to advance the plot, this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  The producers, however, wanted to delete the scene entirely, deeming it senseless.  Thankfully, their advice was not heeded.

With just this one short interlude, Stallone fully exposes Rocky to his audience.  The fact that this tough, street-hardened boxer would take the time to talk to a girl, try to steer her in the right direction, with no ulterior motive, permanently endears us to him.  If we wondered about Rocky before, we no longer do.  This is, unequivocally, a nice person, with a good heart.  This is a guy who cares.  This is a guy we can root for, and like, and that sentiment will carry the rest of the film.  And the fact that he then agrees with Marie–“Who am I to give advice?”–this, also, works in Rocky’s favor.  He comes across as vulnerable here.  Beneath the battle-scarred exterior is a compassionate man who is just as easily bruised as anyone else.

The scene, in short, is a slam dunk.  In two minutes, it displays a depth of character that some roles never project over an entire film.

And it shows the importance of  “character interludes”–short pieces of a story that shine a light on a character’s motives, insecurities, beliefs–anything that enables us to get better acquainted.

**********

In The Eye-Dancers, in chapter two, we meet Joe Marma.  Joe is brash, easy to anger, always ready to fight.  On the surface, we may discount him as a simple troublemaker.  But shortly after we meet him, we witness him talking to his older brother, Bob.  Bob, who is everything Joe wishes he could be–smart, desired by the girls, athletic, and, perhaps most important, tall.  Joe, the shortest kid in his class, has a gorilla-sized chip on his shoulder due to his stature.  The scene between Joe and his brother doesn’t really advance the story line.  But it does let us in, deeper, and we can begin to understand Joe a little bit more, and, hopefully, feel some compassion for him.

The text reads: 

“It wasn’t fair, and so often he felt a river of anger flowing just beneath the surface.  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place.  If he heard one more teacher say, ‘Joe Marma?  Bob Marma’s brother?’ on the first day of classes during roll call, he thought he’d tell that teacher to go stuff it where the sun didn’t shine.  It was hard at Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

***********

Character interludes, as with so much in writing, can be overutilized.  Most scenes in a story should be there to advance the plot, in some way.  If every other scene depicts your protagonists in small talk or shows them doing some trivial, if endearing and idiosyncratic task, the character interludes will kill the momentum of the plot.

On the other hand, if every scene were strictly utilitarian and meant only to push the action along, a story would lose some of its luster, and we wouldn’t get to know the characters as well as we need to.  Balance is the key.  I sometimes think of character interludes as the hot pepper sauce of the literary world.  Too much, and they choke the piece and cause your eyes to water.  But, in just the right amounts, they add flavor, zest, and nuance. adding to the overall reading experience.

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Because, no matter if you’re writing about down-and-out boxers who just want one more chance at the big time . . .

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. . . or a group of adolescents who journey across an endless blue void to a parallel universe . . .

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. . . there is always a place, at some point in a story, for your characters to say, in effect:

“Yo, Marie!  We need to talk . . .”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

To Like or Not to Like, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

Without a doubt, Paul Newman was a superstar, one of the great Hollywood actors.  His success dates back to the 1950s, starring in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer.  But it was his performance playing pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in the 1961 movie The Hustler that cemented his status as one of the all-time best.

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The question immediately arises:  What is it about Fast Eddie Felson that gripped and moved audiences, that allowed Newman to catapult to the very top of his profession?  No question, Newman was a gifted actor, and a lesser talent may not have played the part so well.  Nevertheless, there is something memorable about Fast Eddie, the fictional character.  There is something about him that stuck with people, and wouldn’t let go.

Is Fast Eddie just so likeable?  Is that it?  Surely, he is charming.  With his boyish grin, good looks, and natural flair and charisma, Eddie Felson is easy to notice.

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A great guy, right?  Not really.  All too often, he’s a boorish jerk who mistreats the people closest to him.

A small-time hustler, Eddie thinks of himself as the best pool player in the country, and he wants to prove it by squaring off against the legendary “Minnesota Fats.”  He gets the match, and, despite jumping ahead early, ultimately loses the contest–a grueling 36-hour pool marathon.  After losing to “Fats,” Eddie is down to his last $200.

He then runs out on his longtime friend and business partner, Charlie, scrapes just to get by, and meets Sarah, a troubled alcoholic who falls in love with him.  Throughout all this, we see Fast Eddie at his worst.  When Charlie finds him, and asks him to come back on tour with him, hustling pool on the road, Eddie dismisses him, calling him a “small-time Charlie.”  He wants a rematch with “Fats,” nothing less.  He wants to be the best.  He tells Charlie to “lay down and die by yourself.  Don’t take me with you.”

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He is often insensitive to Sarah, treating her with very little respect, yet he maintains his cocky attitude.  Eddie Felson doesn’t walk.  He struts.  He doesn’t smile.  He smirks.  He’s a jerk.  And yet . . . there is something about him.  Something endearing, nuanced, vulnerable.

Beneath his bravado, Eddie is like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself.  He feels the need to be the best because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is.  By movie’s end, he does get that rematch with Minnesota Fats, and he does in fact beat him.  At a terrible cost.  Sarah has taken her own life, largely as a result of Eddie’s choices and misplaced priorities.  Beating “Fats” is hollow.  The goal he had wanted all along means nothing.  Eddie finally understands this, too late.

You might think, as an audience, we would say, “He had it coming, he should be miserable,” and leave it at that.  After all, if he had chosen a different path earlier in the movie, the tragic outcome could have been avoided.  But then we pull back.  Don’t we all have a little Fast Eddie in us?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Don’t we all, at times, overemphasize trivialities at the expense of life’s essentials?  Eddie Felson is not less of a character because of his flaws.  He is more of one.

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When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I hoped to create characters with layers, depth, dimensions.  It would be easy to label Marc Kuslanski, for example, as the “science geek know-it-all,” and Joe Marma as the “tough kid with the big mouth.”  And it’s true.  Both boys fit those descriptions.  But, it is certainly my hope, that’s not where the descriptions end.

If Joe is rash, violent, angry, and has a chip on his shoulder, why is this so?  When we meet him, we see that he feels he needs to prove himself because he’s the shortest boy in his class.  We also discover that he has an older brother, Bob, who seemingly has it all–grades, girls, sports trophies.  “It wasn’t fair,” the text reads in chapter two.  “No matter what [Joe] did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place. . . . It was hard on Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

Likewise with Marc, it’s easy to dismiss him as a creep.  Even Mitchell Brant, who becomes his friend later in the story, tells him at one point, “Your horse gets pretty high sometimes, you know that?”  But beneath the know-it-all exterior is a person who, even though he doesn’t like to admit it, hungers for a sibling (he is an only child), and a friend.  Early in the book, the narrative reads, “Sometimes, when [Marc] sat in his room, with only his science books and favorite Web pages for companions, he would feel a loneliness that threatened to reach down and crush him in its fist. . . .  He would see kids his own age playing ball, laughing hysterically, joking around, and it was hard not to wonder . . . if perhaps childhood had passed him by altogether—assuming it had ever visited him in the first place.”

I’m not sure if readers will like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  But I hope they’ll understand them, and look at them as flawed people with real feelings and real emotions.

And maybe that’s what it’s all about.  Maybe that’s what characters need to do.  They feel.  They hurt.  They strive, and they fail.  They make progress, and lose ground.  They cry and scream and claw.  They are us.

They don’t need to be perfect.  They don’t need to have all the answers.  They don’t need to be an archetype or an ideal.  They don’t even need to be liked.

They just need to be human.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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