Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to make your story more powerful

Last night we watched the 2008 John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie movie, The Changeling. The movie was based on the true story of a mother in the 1920's whose son went missing and how the LAPD tried to placate her by giving her another boy and telling her they found her son. The story is fantastic and mostly true which gives it a scary edge but this movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, felt completely disjointed and failed it's fabulous cast and director. In trying to figure out what happened, it occurred to me that the producers didn't know whose story they were telling. It was billed as the mother's story- but she was not written well and the impact of her story was lost in shots of Angelina running here and there. They did not get personal enough with her. They did not get into her head and her life.
Then they lost the trued hero of the story- John Malkovich's character- an Episcopal Pastor who had a radio broadcast in LA denouncing the corruption of the LAPD at the time. This is the character who actually drove the action. If he hadn't been denouncing the corruption, he would have never brought the mother and her missing child to the public's attention. He pressured the LAPD for five months-until they produced the "fake" child in hopes of making the matter "go away." But when the mother denied that the child they found was her son and begged them to keep looking- they stuck to their guns and painted her in the press as stressed and a bit crazy. In steps John Malkovich-again. He calls the mother, explains that he believes the cops have railroaded her to improve their image. He convinces her to draw up proof via the boy's dentist, school teacher and personal doctor that the boy is indeed the wrong child. He gets her to make the announcement to the press. The mother is subsequently tossed into the insane asylum in an attempt to shut her up and cool the political situation. All the character of the mother can do is stand her ground in the face of this madness-which is a very static position. The Pastor meanwhile discovers this atrocity and works to get her out. Again- who is doing the action? The Pastor. In the meantime, a boy comes forward and tells the police that his uncle has been killing little boys and identifies the son as one his uncle killed. The police try to bury the story-but another good cop- one we don't know at all until this moment -steps forward and digs up the bodies proving the boy's story to be true. With this information, the Pastor gets the mother out of the asylum, he then gets her a high powered-lawyer to work her case pro bono and together they sue the LAPD.
This is where the action ended and where the story should have ended, but they insisted that it was the passive mother's story and dragged the movie on- showing us how she dealt with the murderer and kept looking for her son for the rest of her life. this caused the last thirty minutes of the story to fizzle.
They say as writers, we are to write each scene from the point of view of the character with the most to lose. Why? Usually that character is the most active- they drive the story. Sometimes- as in this movie- the character with the most to lose is not the character driving the story. It is important as an author to step back and ask yourself-who is driving this story? Why are they driving it? Are they the most important character? Should they be the one whose story I am really telling?
Your work can become so much stronger- more powerful and faster paced if you can identify who drives the action, how they bring about change and how they change. Your story is strongest when you discover whose story you are really telling.
In the case of The Changeling, without John Malkovich's character, Angelina Jolie becomes just another voice in the crowd. How much stronger and more impact-ful the story would have been if told from the Pastor's point of view.
The way to make your story more powerful is to write about the character who is creating change-tell their story and you'll never go wrong.

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