Stealing the Storytelling Techniques in Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of TomorrowI’m trying to write great lit-ra-ture, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a thing or two from a blockbuster action movie like Edge of Tomorrow, which I watched for the third time last night.

“But that’s all formula! That’s Hollywood!” someone in the back shouts. (It’s the guy donning a beret, smoking a clove cigarette and clutching a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

Newsflash–stories are formula. You can break down any story into the same parts. In my first fiction class in the University of Washington MFA program, my teacher Charles Johnson said that it wasn’t enough to write well. You had to know how to tell a story. I rolled my eyes at the time, but he was right. It’s not enough for your sentences to sing. They have to serve a larger purpose–i.e. your story.

So, even if or especially if you’re writing a novel or memoir, listen up. Here are three storytelling techniques you can steal from an unlikely source, a Tom Cruise movie:

  1. Start with Emotion

Emotion is the food that fuels a story. We respond to stories because they evoke powerful emotions in us–anger, jealousy, the desire to protect loved ones. If a story bores us, it’s partly because we don’t give a shit about the protagonist. We don’t relate to—or buy—his basic drives.

Within the first five minutes of Edge of Tomorrow, Cage (Tom Cruise) faces almost certain death. You can feel his fear–the way he tries to bargain his way out of battle, the sweat dripping off his face, his desperate attempts to get the safety off his weapon. His fear is totally relatable.

At the beginning of your own story, what primal emotion do you tap into?

  1. Raise the Stakes

There’s a consequence if the protagonist gets (or doesn’t get) what he wants. This concept of consequences is called stakes. Stakes are the reason we care about a story. If your protagonist is working for something that doesn’t mean anything to him, what’s the point?

In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial stakes are: Cage is going to die if he goes into battle. As the movie unfolds, the stakes rise for Cage. If he doesn’t find a way to survive the battle and kill the alpha, then the entire squad will die. Rita will die. And, finally, he realizes that the world will end. You know that scene in the bar that happens about halfway through the movie? Its sole purpose is raising the stakes.

If you write memoir like I do, then most likely your stakes aren’t about saving the world (if they are, then please send me your book immediately). This doesn’t mean that your stakes are any less important or powerful. I wish I would’ve thought about the stakes in my memoir much earlier in my writing process because it would’ve saved me time. Speaking of which . . .

  1. Know what to leave out

Edge of Tomorrow is like Groundhog Day—this guy relives the same day over and over again, hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Sounds kind of boring, right? Not if we skip over the right parts. This movie does a phenomenal job of keeping up the pace and staying loyal to its story of this cowardly guy finding the courage to do the right thing.

For instance, when he’s sitting with Rita in the abandoned house, and he knows she likes three sugars in her coffee, we infer that he has lived that moment many times before—we don’t need to see every single time.

I’m currently revising the last chapter of my book and really struggling with what to leave out. I’m considering moving forward in time and skipping over some of the minutiae. Why? Although it’s all true and chronological, it doesn’t really serve my story.

Next time you watch a silly Hollywood movie (Taken, anyone?), don’t just watch for fun. See what you can steal from it!

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Four Films that Challenge the American Dream

What does it mean to ‘make it’ in America? Americans value progress, prosperity, and upward mobility. We are taught that, with hard work and a positive attitude, all of us can potentially achieve our dreams and perhaps even become important people.

The following films expose some of the unfortunate byproducts of the American ethos, which include an obsession with status and a lack of connection with other human beings / the world around us. Perfect movies for a quiet Saturday night!  🙂

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A Writer’s Ego: Friend or Foe?

I’m not a big believer in writer’s block or in nurturing my “inner artist child,” partly because I worked as a newspaper reporter. At the newspaper, no one sipped tea or recited affirmations or took a stroll through the garden for inspiration. If you wanted to keep your job, then you met your deadlines. Period.

Creative writing, on the other hand, is, well, creative and therefore more mysterious. To become a writer, I’ve mostly followed the rules: reading as many great books as I could, earning my MFA, devouring (and, for a brief time, teaching) books on writing. Now, years into my apprenticeship, after scribbling on the bus and during my lunch hours, I have completed my first manuscript, which has received accolades from published writers and a professional editor. I feel that I am a writer now because I have written. But when it comes to being an author, I feel overwhelmed and a little lost.

I used to want to get published because I wanted a cushy tenure-track teaching job. It’s interesting how writing and teaching are so intertwined. My writing friends who work in cubicles like I do often feel like failures because they do not have a teaching job, as if teaching would mean they were “real” writers. But I’m not sure who is writing more: the teachers or the cube dwellers.

I also wanted to get published because I wanted validation. I wanted to be ordained by some unnamed group of real writers, who would take me into their fold and embrace me as one of their own. Regardless of our vocation, I think we all need to know that we are good enough, but is our hunt for “proof” counterproductive or is it helpful? Some writers in my tribe whom I admire have said very clearly that ego motivated them and heavily contributed to their eventual publication. Ego plays less of a role in my life than it used to, which worries me.

My memoir is about how I had to let go of some of that ego when I experienced chronic illness in my late 20s. Categories such as health/sickness, success/failure, happy/sad sort of broke apart and disintegrated, and I had to find a new way to order my life and to look at the world. I know this will sound un-American to some of you, but to a great degree, it doesn’t really matter whether I publish my book or not, not in the large scheme of things. Publishing my book, or not publishing my book, doesn’t define me.

I know that ego is still part of the process, though, because I feel afraid when I go to write my draft letters to agents, and when I try to revise my book description and brainstorm titles. Though it’s not true, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, like I have to read more books and hire a consultant. There is still a fear of failing. But I want to let go of that fear and find something else besides ego to hold onto that will motivate me to get through the next phase of my project. I think part of the fear is knowing that publication (unlike making time to write) is not totally in my control. I’m going to have to give up control over the manuscript, and that’s kind of scary.

If fantasies of fame and acceptance don’t appeal to me the way they once did, then what is going to make facing this fear worth it?

I keep coming back to this one idea: people will see themselves in my book, and they will feel less alone. Maybe there is still ego in this idea, but I do believe that my book could help people, the way many books have helped me.

A Good Scare: The Value of Contemplating Death . . . For a Few Minutes

DeathMatt and I were supposed to meet at the gym at 5:30 p.m. I said to meet by the fountain. 5:45 rolled around, and he wasn’t there. I texted him: “I’m here by the fountain.” Then it was 6:00 p.m. I called twice. I texted again: “Just let me know that you’re OK.” Still no answer. Matt always keeps his phone on him, and he’s never late. Something was wrong.

At 6:15, with sweaty palms, I called my mom and asked what I should do. We talked about calling the police and seeing if there’d been any car accidents reported in the area. Then she said I should go home and see if he was there. “What if he had carbon monoxide poisoning?” she asked. “What if he fell, and he can’t get to his phone?”

I paced around the fountain, sick from the adrenaline. What were the last words we’d said to each other? I tried to remember. I’d texted that I loved him. He’d texted back that he loved me too. I hung up with my mom and headed towards the parking garage to go home. What would I find there? Twisted bones. Bloody handprints. Lips blue from lack of oxygen. Could I face this? When I got to my car, I saw Matt’s car parked next to mine. He was OK! Now that I knew he wasn’t dead, I was going to kill him.

I found him working out at the gym. “Where were you?” I said too loudly, in front of all the other gym-goers.

“Keep your voice down,” he said.

“I didn’t know where you were! Where’s your phone?”

“I left it in the car.”

I tried to shake it off. I ran sprints on the treadmill. I listened to the song “Happy.” At home later, I downed a shot of vodka, which had zero effect (for someone who rarely drinks, that’s saying something). Eventually, my body and mind returned to normal.

To survive without going mad, I think all of us need to be in denial: denial that we can lose the people we love at any time. In fact, unless we die before them, we certainly will lose the people we love most. Death is equal opportunity. None of us are going to escape it.

Despite the value of denial, it can be useful to contemplate death from time to time. In a way, I’m glad to have experienced the horror of imagining Matt hurt or worse. It reminded me not to take our time together—or my time in general—for granted.

Books I Must Read This Year

Photo of BooksI am promiscuous with books. I think about other books while I’m reading a book. I buy books and then get distracted and forget to read them because I’m busy buying other books. I spend as much time looking for and thinking about books as I do reading them.

The thing is: about 200,000 books come out in the U.S. every single year. That’s 2 million books a decade. Even if reading were my full-time job, I’d never get to all the books that interest me. That’s why I rely heavily on recommendations (I ask for yours at the end of this post).

In an effort to curb my literary ADD and take control of my life, I am compiling a list of books I want to read at this moment in time, which is 11:32 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, 2014. Perhaps you, too, will be interested in a few of these titles.

(Obviously this list is in no particular order; that would just be cruel.)Read More »