Tag Archives: plot

Lessons From Empire Records

Some of you know that Empire Records is one of my all-time favourite movies. It captures something about the nineties that other movies seem to have missed, an atmosphere that I guarantee you’ll never find in new movies when that decade becomes “retro” and a cool time period to set movies in.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it, I adore Lucas.

But as I was watching last night, I realized that there were things that I, as a writer, could learn from this movie. No, it’s not perfect, but it does a lot of things very well. The first one that struck me was character introduction.

This isn’t a movie with a small cast. It’s not Game of Thrones huge, but it’s a day in the lives of the people who work at a record store, on a day when absolutely everyone is working. So do we open on a scene with everyone running around, doing their thing?

Of course not. The introductions come quickly so we can get to the story, but each character has a moment (or a scene) where we meet them and learn the basics; depth and details come later, but we get enough to push them into our brains and stick a pin in them until we get back to it. Now, I’m talking about the fan edition; forgive me if anything doesn’t line up with the original cut.

First, there’s Lucas. We learn that he’s closing the store, and he’s been instructed not to touch Joe’s (the manager) beer, cigars, or drums.  A moment later we cut to Lucas touching all of those things, drumming away on the piles of money he’s been instructed to count twice. But count it twice he does, which tells us a lot about Lucas. We also learn something when he discovers that his beloved Empire Records (an independent store) is set to be turned into a big chain store (booooo!), and he decides to take a big risk to try to save this place he loves.

Lucas may have impulse control issues and/or an odd way of respecting authority, but he wants to do the right thing. This in just a few minutes, and from him closing the store. Not the most exciting set-up, no danger or explosions or fights, but we’re thrown into character and story right away, and want to know what happens.

Boom. That’s exactly what all writers are told to aim for in the first few paragraphs, isn’t it?

Other characters trickle in the next morning. Joe, the grumpy manager. Frustrated, beaten down, but it’s quickly apparent that he cares for the kids who work for him. We get Mark, who’s obviously not all there (hi, drugs!), but he’s funny and seems like a good guy. AJ: artistic, confused, and lovesick.

Next scene, Corey and Gina on their way to work. Corey: perfect, organized, efficient and infatuated with a much-older pop star who she plans to seduce later that day…

Because it’s REX MANNING DAY, folks!

Rex is clearly a bit of a douche. This creates tension as we wonder what in the world the sweet, innocent Corey wants with him, and how that’s going to pan out. Bleh.

Gina: Corey’s polar opposite, except that they’re both pretty (of course).

Other employees filter in (Burko and Eddie are really the least-developed ones, but we still get a feel for them*), adding to the cast in little bits, allowing the audience to adjust and get to know them a little before we’re overwhelmed with more people. And while this is happening, of course, there’s a plot developing.

Several plots, actually.

And this is another thing I think is interesting. You have this plot concerning what’s going to happen to the store after Lucas screws things up. This affects everyone. But the subplots are thick in this one. AJ wanting to tell Corey he loves her. Debra tried to kill herself, and everyone’s worried about her. Rex Manning is a douche, and just makes everything worse in the store (and adding conflict is a good thing, right?). And we also have Warren the shoplifter.

Gina hates Debra, Debra hates Gina.  Gina is jealous of Corey but tries to hide it; Corey seems perfect on the outside, but we all know that can’t be right. Everything is coming to a crisis point.

It could be a huge mess, but every sub-plot is tied in to the others, adding to them rather than taking screen time away from them, and everything builds toward the climax and a satisfying resolution. Subplots add depth to a story; keeping them tight and intertwined keeps them from slowing the plot down.

So there’s two things, and plenty of evidence that I can’t just sit and enjoy a movie.  There are other lessons, I’m sure. Dialogue is one:

Aah, I love it.

So, what movies have you learned from? Jae, I know you always find lessons in movies (everyone else, have a look!). Anyone else have one movie you just adore and want to share with the class rest of us? Or are there movies/books/shows you thing didn’t do character introductions well, throwing so many people at us that we can’t really tell them apart later on? Share!

*However, their hairstyles are never adequately explained. Come to think of it, everyone’s hair is pretty greasy… this may be the film’s primary downfall.


The Writer’s Garden

Confession: I have a brown thumb. I admire people who can make plants grow and thrive, who have an instinct for nurturing them and whose gardens burst with blooms and edible bounty. I’m not one of those people. I feel guilty buying plants or starting seeds, because it seems unfair to them when they could have a fighting chance with someone else.

But this… this is MY YEAR!

Maybe. The tulips we planted in the fall are pushing out of the ground (much to my surprise). The pansies in the front garden have somehow managed to keep their blooms all winter, which is both amazing and somehow disturbing in a sci-fi kind of way.

And we’re working on a vegetable garden.

Not a fancy one, of course. Easy things like beans and zucchini, and the kids wanted to try pumpkins and corn and carrots. I’ve got salad mix started, because why not? It’ll work or it won’t, and we’re having fun along the way. It’s actually going well so far. The plants we chose to start indoors (because the seed packets said to) have done well in their brief lives, and last week Captain America helped me move the seedlings from their wee soil pellets to roomier accomodations.

Such a versatile hero!

Such a versatile hero!

So there we were with our tiny jungle of seedlings that we’d started as instructed: 2 or 3 seeds in each pellet. Oh, the bounty!

Ain't that purdy?

Ain’t that purdy?

Now, on to the pots! One problem. It said to keep only the strongest seedling in each pellet.

WHAT? The injustice of it had me fuming. How unfair! Why shouldn’t the smaller seedlings have a chance to live and grow, to enjoy the fresh air and the sunshine, to take their chances in the “will the cats decide that this garden is a litter box” lottery? Yes, I like a good underdog story, and the smaller seedlings were just sitting there like wee green Mighty Ducks, begging for me to be their Emilio Estevez.

PLANTS, I WILL BE YOUR EMILIO.

I’m not unreasonable. The non-starters went, as did the ones that couldn’t be bothered to lift their lazy heads out of the dirt until the previous day. But a strong-looking plant that just happened to be smaller than its soil-mate? Up yours, Jiffy Pots, they get to grow on, too.

IMG_2204

They look less impressive all spaced out, don’t they?

You may be wondering why I’m rambling on about these plants when Tuesday posts are usually reserved for writing. Well, here you go:

I’m allowed to do this with plants. We’re in no danger of running out of garden space; if the smaller seedlings don’t yield anything, we’ve lost nothing but a cheap paper pot.  The same can’t be said for many aspects of stories. When it comes down to the edits, of course the weeds have to go: the passive phrases and “was” clusters, the “how the heck did present tense sneak in there?” moments,  the unnecessary adverbs, the excessive shrugging. It’s tedious, but fairly painless. But the weak seedlings have to go, too.

Sometimes it’s not so hard. That subplot that has nothing to do with anything and never went anywhere? Sure, that can go, it’s just dragging everything down. That cameo by the main character’s boss, who’s never going to show up again*? Cut. Wasn’t attached to her, anyway. A scene walking in the woods with the guy who’s not going to be around for long? Eh, there was important information there, but things will be tighter if it’s worked in elsewhere, and he’s had his moment (and he’ll have more in the future, so I don’t feel at all sorry for him).

But that’s never enough.

Next we come to the bits that start to hurt. A touching scene between the main character and a sibling that tells us so much about that character and her family and works in a good amount of worldbuilding, but that doesn’t really move the story forward? That hurts. Re-working things so that this person never shows up in-story and is only referred to when necessary? Also kind of ouch (and cutting her obnoxious, loud kid actually hurt a lot more; I found that situation amusing).

And never mind characters and scenes; what about entire concepts that have been part of your world since you started farting around with it way back when… what happens when they’re important, but are taking up too much page space when you explain them? If they can’t be cut, maybe they can be pushed to the background until they’re needed…

That one bled a little, but it keeps the first 5 chapters flowing more smoothly and quickly.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? It would be amazing if we had unlimited “garden space” in our stories, room for all of our beloved characters, story elements, scenes and subplots to live and grow, even when they’re not adding anything productive to the work.

Well, there is a place for them. But it’s  not in the stories we expect the general public to enjoy.

If our work is going to bear fruit, we have to make tough decisions, identify the weak elements, and do what it takes to make the end result focused, readable, interesting, and well-paced. Pull the weeds, toss the weak sprouts, prune the dead branches.

Do we always succeed? I haven’t read many perfect books, have you? But we do our best, no matter how it hurts, because our garderns– er, stories– deserve no less.

Let’s have it in the comments: when’s the last time you cut something that really hurt? Have you ever felt like you took too much? Any great success stories? And what are you growing in your garden this year?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an underdog team of zucchini seedlings to coach and lead to a hockey championship.**

*very early draft, don’t judge me.

**Metaphors may not be my strong suit…


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