I saw Midnight in Paris this past weekend (yeah, I know I’m late) and was reminded what good story telling is all about. Whatever your personal opinion about Woody Allen the man, Woody, the director and writer is masterful storyteller and still at the top of his game.
The plot centers on a small group of Americans visiting the French capital for business and pleasure. The protagonist, a screenwriter, is forced to confront the shortcomings of his relationship with his fiancé and their divergent goals due to his magical experiences in the city beginning each night at midnight. (Wikipedia)
Midnight in Paris won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best original screenplay during this past award season. The story, a fable really, is told in a sweet, nostalgic style, but the themes are stark and real. The casting was perfect. I can’t think of any other actor besides Owen Wilson who could have played Gil Pender, with the perfect combination of wide-eyed vulnerability and savvy. And he’s just so nice!
But I digress. This post is not intended as a review of Midnight in Paris though I highly recommend it. I want to talk instead about viewing the story from the eyes of a writer and how well it fits with the “mandated rules” of writing. New writers and even experienced ones are reminded about those rules from the moment we pick up a pen. For those writers reading this post now, you are probably anticipating my next words: avoid backstory, show don’t tell, blah blah blah.
Midnight in Paris stands out as a great example of those “rules” in practice.
Don’t Overwhelm Your Reader with Backstory
The story begins as Gil and his fiancé arrive with her parents in Paris; the parents for business, the couple for pleasure. We get a quick peek into their lives and learn that all is not perfect in this relationship and then the story moves forward. Little by little, we learn more and start to wonder how in the world these two ever got together in the first place. Their backstory is so carefully and cleverly intertwined throughout the movie that it is not until we reach the end that we experience that A-ha moment, along with Gil.
Personal Story Arc
Some writers get in trouble with connecting with readers by crafting elaborate plots and then neglecting to give us a reason to care for the protagonist who has to interact with that plot. Gil is a likable person but we needed something else for us to continue to root for him throughout the movie. We’re told that he was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter who was currently working on his first novel. So, of course then next I want to know why he was experiencing so much anxiety about this project. He was obviously talented, but there was backbone that he was not yet displaying in his personal relationships. Why not?
Paris is a secondary character in this movie; some might even argue it’s the star. The take home lesson here is to understand that where and when you place your story could greatly enhance the story and themes you may want to portray. I don’t think this story would have worked nearly as well if Woody Allen had chosen to set it in, say, Omaha Nebraska.
Challenge your reader
Leave your reader with something to chew on after the final page is closed. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have not read Hemingway since I was forced to read his works in high school. And while I was familiar with the name Gertrude Stein, I couldn’t have told you about her contributions to the literary world. Midnight in Paris re-introduced me to these literary giants as well as more than a dozen other writers, musicians, entertainers, and artists active during the Jazz Age of Paris. I’m still thinking about them and I’ve already dusted off my copy of “To Have and To Have Not.”
So what about you? Can you think of other examples in either movies or books that make those rules of writing live?