Someone Else’s Writing

On Strike Against Blackouts

The time has come to make a stand. There are many possible stands I could take. I could decide that flavored whiskies must be destroyed in the marketplace. Or that haircuts are a form of oppression. But the stand I have chosen to make is to protest against the Blackout Ending.

What’s a Blackout Ending? It is often referred to as The Sopranos Ending. You know, where everyone was on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Tony was going to get shot in the head while eating onion rings with his family, and then the screen cut to black and David Chase basically stuck his thumb into your eye? Here’s a screenshot:

I especially love the blocking in this shot.

This should also forever be known as the only time anyone will ever be allowed to do this in the age of Prestige Television, by dint of being the first to do it. And also because I believe Chase did the heavy lifting in the editing and construction of that final sequence to earn his Blackout Ending. You can sift through the cuts and actually make a case for what happened, so I am inclined to give him a Mulligan on this and allow it.

Everyone else who’s done it since? Fuck you, you lazy writers.

The Lady? Or the Tiger?

The ending that isn’t an ending, or the Anti-Ending, isn’t new. The most famous example is probably The Lady, or The Tiger? by Frank Stockton, published in 1882. Anyone who attended at least one decent school probably read this story at some point. If you didn’t, it’s time to reflect on the terribleness of your education. But, that said, it’s not a good story. It’s well-written, but its fame comes from its non-ending, when Stockton basically asks the reader what they think just happened. It cuts to black. It’s bullshit. It was ever bullshit, and it ever remains thus.

Since The Sopranos, other shows have tried this trick, most recently Fargo on FX, which ended with the villain and the hero sitting in an interrogation room, arguing over what was going to happen next. Cut to credits, and we never found out. There are a lot of arguments that this is a perfectly acceptable way to end a story. That it encourages people to come up with their own endings, to study the episodes before and decide what happened.

This is what Literary Scientists call bullshit.

Yes, those arguments are valid enough. And some people like these sorts of endings, arguing that anything the writers came up with would be disappointing. And certainly a lot of endings are disappointing—most notably endings that just cut to black like that. But

  1. The Sopranos gets a pass because it was the first TV show in the modern era to pull this trick. Points for surprise.
  2. The Sopranos gets a pass because, as mentioned, Chase put the work in to seed that sequence with clues that, taken together, point towards a reasonably certain conclusion

Every other show since then is just giving up and saying ¯\_(?)_/¯ as an ending. Listen, I have approximately 5,001 unfinished novels on my hard drive. If this is what we’re doing, I can publish about 5,000 of them immediately. I’ll just cut off the last chapter mid-sentence and let you all bastards figure out what happened.

“Fargo” and The Relativity of Evil

One of the best tricks I get asked about when I talk to aspiring writers is how to make a despicable, perhaps even an evil character likable. This is usually in reference to Avery Cates, who is an assassin and a guy who uses casual violence, even against his friends, to assert himself. Cates is sometimes charming, or funny, or sympathetic, but he’s also always an asshole, so it can be challenging to make readers like him.

There are two main ways to accomplish this. One is to punish the character. Avery is a Bad Actor, but he gets tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and screwed over so often his violence never actually gets him anything aside from short-lived triumph. This makes him a little more sympathetic.

The other way is a slower burn, and it’s something that Noah Hawley is doing in the third season of Fargo on FX: Make everyone else worse. Spoilers be comin’.

The Relativity of Evil

In Fargo, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki Swango, a hard-edged ex-con who takes a practical approach to getting by. Nikki has genuine love for her Parole Officer, Ray Stussy (Ewan MacGregor), and she isn’t such a terrible person. But she does encourage Ray to commit several crimes in pursuit of some stake money, setting in motion some awful events—and when one of Ray’s plots brings a dimwitted, violent man into their lives, she doesn’t hesitate for even a second to murder him via air conditioner.

You read that right.

Death by Air Conditioner is No Way to Go.

Nikki’s not a nice person. She’s a schemer and a murderer and a bit of a grifter. But by episode 7 of the season, Nikki is a character you feel sympathy for. She’s been brutally beaten. Her fiancé is (SPOILERS) dead. She’s been falsely accused of the murder and an attempt was made to assassinate her. All of this helps you to put aside the fact that she dropped a fucking air conditioner on someone.

But what really works to put Nikki’s crimes into perspective are the other villains on the show. Mr. Varga and his henchmen are truly evil, terrifying people who have very little empathy or value for human life. Compared to them, Nikki Vango is not so bad. Her violence is only unleashed to protect herself or her lover, and while I would not, say, want to be in business with Nikki (or living next door to her) she’s not an inhuman monster (or a force of nature, a concept Fargo likes to play with) like the others.

So, air conditioner or not, Nikki has become one of the people you wish survive the story—a feat any writer ought to be able to pull off.

Why I Haven’t Watched the New “Twin Peaks”

It’s 1989 all over again.

I can only assume you all spend about 104% of your time watching entertainments, because otherwise I have no idea how you’ve all already watched everything. I mean, seriously: These TV shows require hours and hours of your time. Are people really bingeing through 10 hours of a show and then shuffling to work at the Emergency Room, where they sew a few sponges into my abdomen and nod off during lunch?

When I was a kid, I was a huge Twin Peaks fan. Yuuuugggggee. I can still remember the moment Dale Cooper had his first dream vision, and I was god-damned mesmerized. I can also remember watching the Season Two finale with some friends in a rented house at college; there was a storm raging outside and I was white knuckled terrified during that ending sequence. Twin Peaks was ridiculous and overwrought and deeply silly, but damn it was good stuff.

I haven’t watched the new version on Showtime. Because life is short.

Down to My Final Trillion Seconds

As far as I know, I’m going to die someday. And based on my functional alcoholism, that time is likely much closer than I might like to think. Which means I have to use my time wisely, which means, put simply, that I no longer make time to watch things live. I DVR them, I order them on-demand, I download them from the Internet. And I only do that if the reviews and think-pieces make it seem worthwhile.

So, maybe the new Twin Peaks is great. Maybe it’s terrible. Time will tell, and I’ll be waiting until it does, because I only have so much time to spend on fictions and entertainments. And considering that we have this power—to vet our entertainment before we spend/waste time on it—why don’t we? Just seems foolish to commit 2 hours to Twin Peaks Mark 2 before I even know if it’s any good.

I could be spending that time drinking, is what I’m saying.

Celebrating “Mad Men”‘s Least-Celebrated Character

Paul Kinsey’s Very Bad, Super No-Good Life

Since this blog has become a receptacle for posts about Mad Men and other so-called “peak TV” shows plus a smattering of self-promotion posts about my own writing … let’s lean into it.

There’s often a sense that old TV shows should be buried and forgotten, as if there’s shame in discussing a show like Mad Men a certain time after it’s ended. Hell, we still discuss novels written centuries ago, so why not a TV show that’s less than a few years gone? But when we talk about Mad Men—and, remarkably, we still do, an awful lot—there’s a tendency to focus on the flashy main characters, naturally enough. But we have enough essays about Don Draper, I think. As writers, we tend to focus on Don, because he’s so obviously like us: Creative, tortured, stymied by the very instruments of his success.

Forget Don, though, and let’s contemplate a character that doesn’t get much attention in any serious way: Paul Kinsey. Because, writers, in many ways Paul Kinsey is us.

The Failed Writer

Kinsey doesn’t get a ton of screen time on the show, and what he does get is used mainly for comic relief, but as usual Weiner and company shade the character with plenty of good writing. We know, for example, that Paul is from New Jersey and attended Princeton on a scholarship, where he lost his joisoy accent and learned how to dress and talk and fondle a pipe like his richer classmates. At the beginning of the series, he’s one of a group of young men at the firm, all of whom are more or less equal despite being in different departments. He’s a copy writer, though, while his peers are in accounts.

And Paul is not talented. What he’s good at is superficial mimicry, which is why he does well enough at first when his immediate boss is the alcoholic and incompetent Freddie Rumsen. But Paul is weak and likes to think of himself as smarter than everyone else, so he dabbles. He dabbles in the Beatnik movement, the Hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement. He feigns an appreciation of the finer things, but he uses this appreciation as an excuse to let everyone know how worldly he is.

Paul is increasingly aware that something is off. Late in Season 1, a play he wrote is discovered in his desk and his co-workers stage it as a drunken, cruel prank. Paul eventually leans into it, directing the play with enthusiasm, but it’s clear the play is terrible. Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove actually publishes short stories in real magazines, and slowly Paul sees his peers outpacing him. Pete and Ken and even despicable, harebrained Harry Crane move up the food chain, making more money and gaining status. Paul remains a Copy Writer, and not a very good one.

And then, in the middle of Season Three of the show, Paul Kinsey has an epiphany and realizes he is not a good writer. Because Peggy Olson is a good writer, and you can almost pinpoint the moment he realizes he’s not one to episode 10, The Color Blue. In that episode Peggy and Paul compete to come up with the best idea for a telegram advertisement. Peggy does the work studiously, and doesn’t come up with much of any value. Paul drinks, masturbates, and has a flash of inspiration–which he forgets to write down. We’ll never know if that idea was actually any good, because Paul shambles into the meeting later with nothing—and watches, stunned, as Peggy takes a throwaway line he used to explain his problem and runs with it, producing a decent if not world-changing concept on the spot.

At that moment, Paul knows he’s mediocre. In episode 13, when Don and the rest of the executives steal all the accounts and form a new company, Don personally recruits Peggy. No one recruits Paul. When Paul realizes this, its confirmed: He’s not good at his job.

The Downward Spiral

We don’t see Paul again until Season 5, when he appears as a member of the Hare Krishna’s, looking ridiculous and pathetic and lost with a shaved head. Like most failed writers, he hasn’t given up on his dream. Like anyone who has ever been voted off a talent competition show, he has decided that we haven’t heard the last of him, so he’s still writing.

Paul’s spec script for Star Trek is the sort of awful SFF idea that still gets written every few weeks by flailing writers, the sort of terrible idea that will always be written by flailing writers. Worst of all, Paul seems to know that he doesn’t have talent, as he has pinned his hopes on Harry’s TV connections to get the script considered. Paul has descended to a low point: No longer in the ad business, he’s not even getting paid for his second-rate creativity. He’s got nothing, and yet he’s still plodding away at terrible stories.

That could be any one of us. Even if you’ve published, and published widely, you can’t be certain it’s not just luck, that history will slowly rub your face out of the picture until no one is quite sure who you are, and no one remembers the stories you told. In just 40 episodes and probably a collective hour’s worth of screen time, the writers of Mad Men made Paul Kinsey into a well-shaded, sad individual, and he ought to be the patron saint of anyone who joined their high school literary magazine and thought they were special because they wrote stories.

WestWorld May Be Too Clever for Its Own Good

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

So, I’ve been watching WestWorld on HBO. This enrages my brother, Yan, who more or less believes that all remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are bullshit. The moment he learns that a remake is looming, he goes off on a rant about how no one writes new stories any more.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. HBO’s version of WestWorld is entirely different from the original film. Everyone has a lot of affection for the original, mainly because of Yul Brynner’s classic performance as the Gunslinger and because every young man who watched that film in the 1970s and 1980s immediately began thinking about Sex Robots.

There are plenty of Sex Robots in HBO’s WestWorld. There’s also a lot of video game stuff, because some clever bastard obviously thought that a place like WestWorld would basically be an IRL video game. So when a guest arrives in town it’s like being in a sandbox-style video game, where you have a main storyline, but there are endless side-quests you can get sucked into that add content and depth (and playing time) to the game. That’s all well and good. That’s interesting and quite clever for a modern reboot of the concept.

The downside? The god-damn Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the god-damn cutscenes.

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“You’re the Worst” & Subtle Unreliability

It's Not Funny

It’s Not Funny

Used to be, things like unreliable narrators or breaking the Fourth Wall on television was a bold and uncanny thing to do. It shocked viewers who had been trained to rely on the narratives and narrators TV offered up. But as TV shows have gotten more and more novelistic in their approach, the Fourth Wall is getting demolished. And unreliable narration is almost assumed.

Novels, after all, don’t have a Fourth Wall. When you read a book the narrator’s voice is in your head, addressing you. You’re basically there, following everyone around. So when a TV show like Mr. Robot or Fleabag deletes the Fourth Wall, it edges closer to being a novel in visual form. When those narrators prove to be unreliable, it can still pack a punch, but often it’s easy to see. Who, after all, was at all surprised when Fleabag or Elliot turned out to be unreliable? No one who was paying attention. It still worked, it just wasn’t a surprise. Which is neither a good thing or a bad thing.

Another show that transcends typical TV comedy work is You’re the Worst, which could be a dumb show about trying to disgust the audience as much as possible with how truly terrible the characters are, but is just smart enough to back up off that level of depravity. The characters on You’re the Worst are in fact terrible people, but there’s just enough decency sprinkled in to keep your attention.

It’s also a show playing with unreliableness, which might come as a surprise, as it isn’t a show with a fixed POV or narrator, and always seems to be presenting these awful people more or less as they are. But the show has been revealed to be subtly unreliable because of S03EP05, “Twenty Two.”

Shitty Jimmy & Company

So, You’re the Worst, like most TV comedies, has a core cast who play specific roles. The main characters are Jimmy and Gretchen, two awful assholes living and striving in L.A. In their orbit are some friends: Shallow, monstrous Lindsey, her milquetoasty husband Paul, and Jimmy’s odd roommate Edgar. Other characters orbit at increasing distances from these. This is a pretty standard comedy setup: Main folks, second-tier characters, and a diaspora of decreasingly important characters.

What’s interesting about comedies is that there are funny folks and straight people. Straight people are often used to bring context—and in the case of You’re the Worst, the straight person is usually Edgar. Edgar has PTSD after his service in Iraq, and lives with Jimmy in exchange for acting as a cook, housekeeper, and general servant. In the past he regards Jimmy as his friend, but he is always somewhat disturbed by the callous and terrible nature of the people around him. His character serves as an important contrast, because he’s fundamentally decent, always means well, and registers his hurt when Jimmy and the others treat him awfully, which they always do. Without Edgar the show would be 100% assholes, and as anyone can tell you, a show that’s 100% assholes is Seinfeld, or Veep, and that only happens once a century or so.

So, Edgar’s usually not the funniest person on the show. He reacts, and sometimes he’s in funny situations, but he’s not actually all that funny. In fact, the show puts a button on this by having Edgar become involved with Improv Comedy, and be more or less terrible at it. He’s not funny, because he’s not the main character of the show.

Which becomes very interesting in “Twenty Two,” which is the first episode of the series from Edgar’s point of view. And it’s not really a funny episode. It barely has any jokes. Because suddenly we’re seeing it fro Edgar’s point of view, and the people around him aren’t hilariously callous—they aren’t hilarious at all. They’re just terrible people.

What If You’re Just a Character in My Sitcom?

This is interesting because it forcibly reminds the audience that in the previous episodes of the series, they’ve been seeing everything from the main characters’ POV. From Jimmy and Gretchen and Lindsey’s POV, everything is hilarious, because they’re the center of the show. Their POV dominates everything. Yes, they can sometimes see the pain and suffering of others, but it’s marginalized, distant, and easily ignored.

The audience of course always identifies with the main characters; we can’t help it. Even the Walter Whites of the world, we want them to succeed. To survive. It’s human nature.

So “Twenty Two” shifts away and offers us Edgar’s POV, and suddenly the people we’ve been laughing at and with, the people who we unconsciously regard as the protagonists of this story, are revealed to be braying, not-particularly-funny assholes. And Poor Edgar, rather than being a supporting player in a comedy, is the lead actor in a tragedy, and we’ve been watching him for dozens of episodes without a thought, and that makes us complicit assholes as well.

It’s a sobering, exciting moment. While Fleabag‘s cheeky glances and funny asides and Mr. Robot‘s paranoid lectures might be flashier and more obvious breakings of the Fourth Wall and reliability, You’re the Worst‘s is more powerful, because even as you watch it some time goes by before you realize you’ve just seen a complete shift not just of POV but of tone, inviting you to realize that your impression of the show has been carefully managed all along, and you’re part of it.

You’re always part of it.

Writing: Watch Out for the Forgotten Character Detail

POOOOOTTTTSSS

POOOOOTTTTSSS

So, Roadies, the new show on Showtime from Cameron Crowe is proving to be a Master Class in How Not to Write in many ways. The show doesn’t lack some charm, and the world of a tour crew with a major band is kind of interesting to see, but it’s amazing how far Crowe—who once had a golden ear for dialogue—has fallen in recent years. When was the last time Cameron Crowe made something people talked about in a positive way?

Roadies is populated by likable actors, which is the only reason, really, it’s watchable. And every episode offers an object lesson in writing mistakes. The example we’ll pull comes from the pilot episode, which of course has to do a lot of work to introduce the premise, the characters, the setting, and the season-long conflicts and storylines. And Crowe makes a fundamental, if minor (but irritating) error when he introduces the Quirky Character Detail What is Forgotten Immediately and Never Mentioned Again. This is an error that a lot of writers make in their stories and novels, so it’s useful to take a gander.

I AM QUIRKY AND ADORABLE, DAMMIT

In Roadies, Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann, who has a junior role with the roadie crew. She’s supposed to leave for school in the pilot, but of course is seduced by the love and sense of family she feels with her co-workers to eschew higher education in favor of an adventure on the road—fair enough, a believable if not particularly inspired bit of motivation. Poots is, of course, adorable, and she plays Kelly Ann with a bit of measured intelligence; her expressions of doubt and suspicion whenever someone tells her something do a lot to make her character at least seem interesting.

Now, creating and defining characters is hard. It’s very easy to reduce every character down to a trait, or an ethnicity. In fact, a lot of writers start off with little more than that, and add in the details later. And sometimes, in an effort to establish a character before you’ve done the hard work with dialog and action to define them, it’s common to attach weird little details.

Now, weird little details can be inspiring when they react with dialog and action. The way Heath Ledger licked his lips as The Joker in The Dark Knight was inspired; combined with his statements, actions, and appearance, it was a wonderful little tic that underscored his squirrely energy. But this goes wrong when it’s the only thing that differentiates a character—but it also goes wrong when you immediately forget all about that quirky trait after introducing it.

In the Roadies pilot, it is established that Kelly Ann eats off of other people’s plates, a mildly rude yet quirky (oh god quirky) little tic. It’s mentioned explicitly as a reason another character doesn’t like her, and then there is a moment when Kelly Ann does it in a very obvious and ostentatious way, to drive the point home.

It’s easy to imagine that Crowe, faced with a character he’d made blonde, beautiful, young, and smart, needed some way to make her seem, you know, interesting. So he gave her this totally innocuous trait, and made sure we noticed it. And then he completely forgets all about it and the behavior is never mentioned again in subsequent episodes. And that’s annoying. It’s a dumb detail, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of putting a flag on it and making certain we notice it as a way of making the character interesting, then you have to remember it. Otherwise it distracts.

So, when writing, keep that in mind: Giving your character a gonzo detail to give them shape and a memorable aspect is fine. Just don’t forget you did it when you start Chapter Two.

The Most Interesting Scene in “Mr. Robot” S2E1

ursoscrewed.png

ursoscrewed.png

I remain absolutely riveted by USA’s Mr. Robot. It’s like a slow-motion horror movie—like literally if you took a horror movie about a man losing his mind and slowed it to like 1/8th speed, you would have Mr. Robot‘s episodes. Then a brilliant fan theory starts going around online that makes me appreciate what the show is doing even more. I mean, there simply isn’t another show out there operating on Mr. Robot’s visual and atmospheric level right now.

The show’s not perfect, of course, but every episode offers something, usually a sequence that is simply a brilliant mini-movie. This got me thinking about a sequence in the season two premiere that isn’t getting a lot of heat, but I think should: the hacking and takeover of Susan Jacobs’ smart house.

It’s no secret that Mr. Robot often films its episodes like a horror movie instead of a techno thriller or a story about hackers who actually kinda sorta resemble the real thing instead of the Hugh Jackman speed-typing sort you usually get. The lighting, framing, angles, and music all combine to offer up a tableau of dread that is very effective. And this scene is like a mini-horror movie without a payoff—or perhaps a delayed payoff to come.

Mild spoilers to follow if you care about spoilers.

Susan Jacobs is very rich woman, counsel to E Corp. She has a very nice townhome. It’s got a pool, a spa-like bathroom, and a “smart home” system that allows Susan to control everything via iPad. It’s kind of awesome, until she comes home and everything is misbehaving. The alarm won’t stop going off. Music blares at unbearable levels. Her shower is burning hot and the air conditioning has the place at 40 degrees. The TV won’t shut off.

She’s lost control.

The whole sequence is filmed like a horror movie and so it should, as the idea that by bringing these technologies into our homes we’re giving control of some of the most essential aspects of our lives—our shelter—into the hands of a) unseen corporate interests and their drones or b) hackers is kind of scary. By the time we get a smash cut to Jacobs, wearing a winter coat indoors and screaming into the phone that she can’t unplug anything because the wires are buried in the walls, we know she’s totally screwed. She schedules a service call, calls a car, and flees to her country house because of course she has a country house. And literally moments later, F Society shows up, turns everything off, and takes control of the house. They set everything to go crazy just to drive her away. Now they have weeks of using this awesome house for free.

Clever, but what’s really clever about it is how this sequence underscores something interesting: The hackers aren’t the heroes of this show. There are no heroes on this show. The hackers are just as menacing and destructive as the evil corporation. The hackers managed to erase the debts of millions, but this supposedly Robin Hood-like move has destabilized the world, and regular people are shown having to deal with the negative side of this Fight Club ideal: Sure, their debts have been erased … but so has all evidence that they paid those debts in the first place. As a sequence showing a woman desperately trying to convince the bank that she is up to date on her mortgage show, erasing all that data won’t cause the banks to shrug and say well, we can’t prove you owe us money so we guess you don’t! Instead, the more likely scenario is that we’d all find ourselves forced to prove the negative: That we don’t owe them money.

The theft of the smart house should be a chilling sequence for anyone who has a Nest installed and is thinking about an Internet-enabled lock or something. It should also serve as clear evidence that the show doesn’t think there’s really any difference between the hackers and the corporations. They both steal whatever they want, and the people who don’t understand the complex systems they administer—computers and the Internet Vs. money and finance—are doomed to be the victims of the people who do.

Authoring is Hard Work

Cats Ate My DeskIn 2002, a year in which otherwise almost nothing I can remember happened, the New York Times reported that “a recent survey” confirmed the worst fears of many Americans: 81% of the country thought they could write and publish a book. Eighty-one percent. Considering there are about 319 million people in the U.S.A. alone, that means about 258 million people figure that someday when they have some spare time they’ll bang out a novel. Or, more accurately, they’ll go find a writer friend they know, drunkenly explain the story idea with helpful doodles on cocktail napkins as visual aids, and then let that writer friend write and publish the book while splitting the profits 70/30.

At first blush, the 81% number seems high, especially when you consider that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts just 129,100 authors and writers in the country as of 2012. Although, when combined with the explosion of self-publishing in recent years, that seems like a dubious number too, especially when you learn that the Bureau also claims the median income for authors and writers is $56,000 a year when most writers are constantly Googling “how to boil shoes for dinner” or “how long can I eat nothing but Ramen before getting scurvy”—although to be fair when you include people like James Patterson or Stephen King or E.L. James in the calculations, that median is going to shoot up quickly.

However, when you think about how many people participate in things like NaNoWriMo every year (more than 300,000 according to the website) and how many people are publishing novels—more than 750,000 traditionally and self-published books annually in the United States alone—it starts to seem like that 81% number might make sense after all.

In reality what this means is that an enormous number of people think they can write and sell a book, but less than 25% of them actually do, one way or another. That’s a big gap, even if we remove those helpful folks who are always offering up brilliant ideas for novels and seeking to split profits and restrict ourselves solely to people who would, you know, actually be willing to write a book. As an author myself, there’s only one explanation for the this discrepancy that makes sense: writing a novel is hella hard. Selling a novel is even harder. Black magic may be involved.

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Details and The Ragged Genius of “Rules of Attraction”

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

Every story is a collection of details, an accumulation of notes about expressions, actions, reactions, natural phenomenon, etc. Sometimes those details are layered on with a heavy trowel, burying the reader under a mountain of words. Sometimes they’re used more sparingly, leaving more of the heavy lifting for the reader’s imagination to fill in gaps.

Sometimes, they’re used really, really specifically.

Consider Roger Avary’s 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction. Based on the 1987 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it’s a film that remains somewhat ignored and controversial. It is, after all, adapted from an Ellis novel, which means it is a film about Monied Trash People who screw and puke and get stoned and exist for no reason whatsoever, and wallows in their elite crapulence. It has Patrick Bateman’s little brother as a lead character. You can’t like anyone in the story, and the story itself eats its own tail and appears to be about nothing much at all.

The film’s pretty amazing.

Number one, you have James Van Der Beek, still young-looking enough to be Dawson, giving a really great performance as the creepy, dumb, pathetic Sean Bateman. Number two, there are a lot of little tricks that work in this movie, from extended sequences played backwards, complete with backwards sound, and split screens and super creepy close ups of people. The performances are solid. If you can stomach the awful Monied Trash People who are its subjects—and the fact that one of the leads is literally raped within the first two minutes of the film—it’s a fascinating movie that has emerged from 2002 more or less unscathed except for the fact that no one has a cell phone.

But the real reason you should watch this movie is one of the details: This woman.

wayman

Before he ruins it with a shitty flashback montage obviously designed for idiots who aren’t paying attention, Avary does something really great with this character, who is unnamed in both the novel and the film. It’s a clear use of planting details purposefully—not to bury the reader/viewer in minutiae, or to world build, but simply for effect. Anyone writing their own stories can learn this trick and make it their own.

A Little Exposition

First, though, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or read the book, a little exposition. Spoilers for a movie that came out in 2002, if you really are that weird, follow.

James Van Der Beek plays Sean Bateman, attending elite Camden College, where he has been receiving anonymous letters from a girl. His secret admirer leaves her perfumed, glitter-bomb letters in his campus PO box and never signs them. Sean is smitten with his unseen admirer, and comes to suspect she is Lauren, an elfin virgin played by Shannyn Sossamon, who he meets cute and falls in love with. On the day of a big party, his stalker leaves a letter telling Sean that “tonight is the night” that they will finally meet. But when Sean arrives at the party Lauren isn’t there, and he decides to sleep with her roommate (played by Jessica Biel as a coke-sniffing wild child).

When the author of the letters is revealed, however, halfway through the film, it appears to be a girl we’ve never seen before. A wholly new character who is devastated when Sean goes off with the plastic and awful Biel. Avary, in fact, cuts from the narrative to spend several minutes with this new face as she commits suicide in the communal dorm bathroom, keeping a tight focus on her face as she bleeds out. It’s harrowing; her face starts off blank and depression-numbed, but as she bleeds it collapses into a flurry of emotions that is truly hard to watch.

As a first-time viewer, you can’t help but wonder where in the hell she came from.

On second viewing, you see it: She’s been there all along. The character appears four times before her suicide, always stalking Sean Bateman. She’s in the foreground, the background. She’s at the party when Sean, thinking Lauren has stood him up, leaves with her roommate. She’s always been there. We just didn’t notice.

(And then, yes, Avary ruins it by including a hamfisted montage of those prior scenes just to make sure we get it, and it’s so awful it makes me angry to this day, because it ruins a truly perfect moment).

The Power of Details

Avary’s choice to have the character in scenes but keep her part of the set dressing is a powerful one, because it makes the audience complicit with Sean. We’ve both just spent the entire movie not noticing this girl. We’re both mystified when she appears on screen, her face filling the frame (or Sean would be if he ever realized his mistake, which he does not). If you didn’t notice the girl the first time around (and if you claim you did I don’t quite believe you), her suicide is shocking. It’s powerful storytelling pulled from a few details Avary scatters here and there.

And he’s not done. Because in the sequence when Sean is having sex with Lauren’s roommate in their dorm room, he glances up from Biel’s contorted face at the wall where a collage of photos has been pasted up. And one of those photos is of Lauren and the unnamed stalker girl, who is killing herself in the bathroom a few doors away at that precise moment.

The implications are strong. And never explained. Obviously, Lauren and this girl know each other, and thus she must be part of their shared world on campus. And yet Sean Bateman has no idea she exists. He meets Lauren and decides he is in love with her within a short time, but he never even sees this girl who is literally following him everywhere and is friends with Lauren herself.

Avary’s decision to leave the girl’s character as a string of details is brilliant, even if it is ruined by that later montage. The viewer has to extrapolate the whole story from a few grains, and it elevates the film. In a world where a lot of writers seem to think that the more dense your details the more real your world will feel, there’s a lessen, and it’s pretty clear: Less is more. But only if you know what you’re doing.