By Steve Fey
I’ve always liked to write stuff. In elementary school I made up some awful bit of drivel about a baseball team, which is now lost to posterity. Posterity should send me a thank-you note. By junior high school, now known in most places as middle school, I was skipping doing my homework in study hall in favor of reading everything I could find by Poe, Twain, and the prodigious science fiction author for youth, Andre Norton. Besides lousy grades, this habit helped give me a broader perspective on life than that of most of my small town friends. That perspective was helped along in high school by an English teacher who forced me to learn to spell, and also forced me to read all sorts of “good books.”
You know “good books,” don’t you? Things like Withering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, a few plays such as Macbeth. I was becoming “an intellectual.” Fer sure. And I got to read poetry, too. Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Robert Burns (lot of poets named Bob, apparently), Sandburg, Nash. There was some good stuff in there. College reinforced my earlier training. Even though I wasn’t an English major, I took a lot of literature classes. That’s where I found out what Huckleberry Finn is really about (and no, it isn’t a racist book at all), and first read John Fowles, Leo Tolstoy, Camus, and other living and dead authors. A lot of them I really liked reading, too.
I even read The Lord of the Rings when Tolkein was still alive to write dust jacket notes for the books. The books, so far as I’m concerned, are better than the movies, because you don’t need to have read the books previously to enjoy reading them.
I watched lots of movies, too. That’s relevant to what I’m saying because I now write scripts for movies. I love movies as much as I love good books. ThereÆs nothing I like better than a book or film that’s so good that I lose myself in it for a time. A great movie to me is one that I don’t deconstruct on my first time seeing it. If the movie is only good, I check my watch for the timing, analyze scenes, and otherwise distract myself from the fact that the film isn’t totally engrossing.
I learned about deconstruction in college, too. I remember the play We Bombed in New Haven, where the actors step out of character right in the middle and introduce themselves. I just loved that device. Very intellectual, isn’t it? The trouble is, most people in America have never heard of We Bombed in New Haven. That includes most of the people who have heard of, for instance, Lethal Weapon or The Matrix. Neither of those movies has ever been accused of being overly intellectual, but both have outsold the intellectually superior Bombed by maybe a couple of powers. What, you might ask, is wrong with people?
Well, that’s an entire thesis, or library, of an answer. Whatever it is, an author should remember that he or she is a person, too. So, whatever’s wrong with people is, gasp, wrong with the author as well. Consider an arena where intellectuality is more honored than in the United States of America: Europe. I’ve seen some movies from Europe that I really thought were terrific. German cinema is famous for innovative techniques in storytelling. France has produced some of the finest comedies ever written. It’s good to be an artist and intellectual in Europe. They’ll honor you there, much like some American musicians find appreciation on the continent that they never receive back home. It’s a paradise for “good” art.
“So, the problem is?” I hear you asking. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of top-selling movies in Europe are American. Not indies that were discovered at Sundance, but the big ol’ studio-produced, crass and commercial films like . . . well, how about Lethal Weapon and The Matrix? It’s true. In the home of honor for artists, where you can hear people criticizing the crass commercialism of American film, the stuff that gets watched is just that crass commercial product. How on earth can that be?
It may not satisfy a hard-core English professor to hear this, but “great literature” that remains popular for centuries follows the same rules as do commercial movies. There’s a mythological construct that underlies all good stories, in fact. If you want to see it in its least disguised form, read The Odyssey. If you don’t think that book would be a commercial success if it were written today, then you have missed some things in (or never seen) such films as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Frankly, folks, the same things happen at the same point in each of those stories.
Don’t believe me? Well, at 26-2/3 percent into a story, the hero (protagonist according to Aristotle) is thrust irrevocably into strange territory. Up until that point, there was at least a theoretical way out of having the adventure. At that point, there is no longer a choice. Guess what happens at just that point in Huckleberry Finn? If you guessed that Huck, Jim, and the raft drift right past Cairo in the fog, you’re right. Huck’s stuck now, and has no choice but to go on down the river. Mark Twin not high literature enough for you? Then consider one young Dane named Hamlet. I think most people consider Shakespeare to be “good” literature, after all. At that point in the play, the young hero, in a passage including the line “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” declares that he is going to set things right. No more wavering soliloquies now: he’s going in.
See? The Bard of Avon used the same timing scheme as Mark Twain, and as the writers of popular movies. Is that so bad, after all? I really like Shakespeare, as a career writer I mean. You know what he was really after? Do you think he sat down one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a play about the dangers of revenge, with a great moral message for future generations to heed.”? No, he did not. He wanted juicy roles for himself and his friends, he wanted to please his Queen, and most of all he wanted to pack the house so he knew where his next pint of ale was coming from. He knew the rules for creating a popular story, too. So, while he certainly did create some great literature, he’d have considered that a happy accident. As evidence of that being the case, consider that he threw his stuff away, and it was his friends who saved it and got it published. Three cheers for his friends, but my point is that Will was writing commercial fiction.
And that’s just what I hope to accomplish as well.
Steve Fey has been writing throughout a lifetime of doing other things for a living. A few years ago he turned his attention to screenplays, of which he has now written five and has one in the works. Since the conventional wisdom holds that anything after the fifth one should be salable, he’s feeling optimistic.You can visit Steve Fey’s website.