Minimalization

Revising my portfolio again, now that this crazy thing has become such a huge confusing mess.  I’m going back to my minimalist ideals and making everything here at JGE as straightforward and inoffensive to the eye as possible — so if you see things start to change, don’t panic.  It’s completely normal.

In other news, I recently submitted about 30 short works to lit mags around the country.  I expect to receive at least one or two bites, but  those of you familiar with the mystical world of literary magazines will know that my submissions have disappeared into a black hole nexus for the next four months or so.

In the meantime, be sure to check out my two ongoing blogs, Minimalist Reviews and Story Science, both of which post informative articles on a weekly (or sometimes bi-weekly) basis.  Last week’s articles proved very popular: Minimalist Review of Argo, a film by Affleck and The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise.  This week’s articles are: Minimalist Review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film by David Gelb and Violence and Story.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary film by David Gelb

poster for Minimalist Review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary film by David GelbBy James Gilmore

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a small film, minimalist in every respect. Tender, intimate, and honest, this documentary demonstrates majestic simplicity. Crisply shot with the Red One and Canon 7D, David Gelb ability to capture compact but meaningful cinematic visuals reveals a subtle storytelling genius. The film’s flavorful imagery all but places each dish onto your watering tongue. Although Jiro lacks the polish of a high-budget studio film, raw elements such as the modest, inconspicuous soundtrack (as minimalist in composition as the movie itself) work in favor of the film instead of against it.

Superficially, Jiro provides an insightful cross-section into the alien microcosm of a world-class sushi chef in Japan and its thematically related orbiting satellites.  But on a deeper, more profound level Gelb’s documentary illuminates the relationships of fathers and sons—and by extension, masters and apprentices—as universal, transcending both culture and context.

Simple, honest, gorgeous. A masterful accomplishment for a young filmmaker, worthy of the praise of foodies and cinephiles alike. Place Jiro Dreams of Sushi on your must-see list—and then plan on going out for sushi.

Rating:  5 / 5

Violence and Story: How Much Violence Should I Put in My Story?

A question came up in a LinkedIn group not too long ago regarding ‘violence’ in one writer’s story. This writer presented a work based on his own life to a writing teacher, who responded by telling him it was “too violent.” Since the writer still felt strongly about his largely autobiographical story, he posed the question to our discussion group: “How Much Violence Should I Put Into My Story?” Today we propose to answer that question.

Here are three simple rules for using violence in your story (in order of importance):

  1. Violence Must Be Appropriate to STORY
  2. Violence Must Be Appropriate to GENRE
  3. Violence Must Be Appropriate to your INTENDED AUDIENCE

All three of these rules are interdependent and what affects one will affect others as well.

(NOTE: When we mention “amounts” of violence we are referring to both volume AND intensity.)

1. VIOLENCE AND STORY
vector illustration indicating various types of cartoon violence in storytellingAlthough violence is often considered an aesthetic value (that is, a matter of taste), it actually plays a distinctive role in your story. If the story is about gang violence among teens on the street and how terrible it is, you will have to include enough violence to communicate the ideas, meaning and thematic elements required in your story. But if you are making a fun action-adventure that is neither realistic nor gritty, then keep the violence down to a tolerable level because the only thing you gain by adding more is a higher MPAA rating.

2. VIOLENCE AND GENRE
Crime dramas, horror flicks and gritty action thrillers inherently require more violence to live up to the audience’s expectations than do other genres, like comedy or romance.

3. VIOLENCE AND YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE
Obviously, splattering the walls with gore in an educational animated film about a group of hugging teddy bears is not appropriate to an intended audience of young children. Family-oriented films have the least violence because they are intended to be seen by a broad-spectrum audience which includes parents and children of all ages. On the other hand, if it’s a gory horror film, part of the viewer’s expectation is to see the screen painted with a certain volume of blood and guts, lest they be disappointed.

LEVELS OF VIOLENCE
The remarkable thing about violence in art is how we perceive it as consumers. The more explicit the storyteller makes the details of a violent act, the more violent it will be perceived by the audience. To decrease perceived violence, a storyteller may employ a strategy called “cutting away” in which the storyteller avoids providing explicit details by cutting (in film, or the equivalent in prose) to the reaction of an onlooker, avoiding vivid portrayal of the worst details but leaving most of it to the imagination of the audience.

Here is a basic guide to the main categories of violence employed by storytellers in books and film:

1. No Violence: No violence at all. Usually confined to children-oriented materials and programming targeted at females, such as chicklit (print) or dramas which focus on character and relationships. An excellent example of this violence level is Lost in Translation, a film by Sofia Coppola.

2. Comic Violence: The most common violence in animated and family-oriented stories. Usually bloodless and without lasting effects, violence is presented in a funny way to counteract its seriousness. Think Shrek.

3. Bloodless Violence: It’s surprising how much an absence of blood and gore can reduce the gravity of pain and death. Bloodless violence is prolific among big blockbuster films that want to appeal to a broad audience. Return of the Jedi (and all of the Star Wars films) uses virtually no blood at all.

4. Moderate Violence: The most common type of violence used in media, it has some blood but only light gore or detail, such as Lord of the Rings (movies) and The Hunger Games (book). Hunger Games keeps the perceived violence level fairly low for its intended audience (YA, “young adult”) by employing the written equivalent of “cutting away.” The 2012 film adaptation takes this a step further.

5. Realistic Violence: This can be gritty, gory, and even downright gruesome. Just about any specimen of the war genre falls into this category, such as Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers.

6. Gory Violence: The most extreme violence level includes films like I Spit on Your Grave as well as a large bulk of the horror genre in both film and print. At its most extreme end there is a horror subgenre called torture porn.

IN CONCLUSION…
Use common sense in determining the appropriate level of violence for your creative work, and only that violence which serves the story, genre or intended audience. You need enough to get your point across but don’t overdo it.

Argo, a film by Ben Affleck

By James Gilmore

Ben Affleck’s Argo takes a clumsy script and transforms it into a seat-riveting filmic experience.  He and his skillful editors successfully impress artificial tension upon the audience in spite of the script’s many shortcomings.  Script problems magnify when translated to the big screen, and such issues become very evident as characters reveal their lives to each other in standalone cutaway scenes that serve no plot purpose.  Affleck’s protagonist character, Tony Mendez, is poorly written, making him too weak and impotent in comparison to his fellow cast members.

Minimalist Review of Argo, a film directed by Ben AffleckThe audience will feel a sudden jolt as they are thrust into and out of a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood sequence that is not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, and ultimately comes across as a series of inside jokes among Hollywood types more than a cohesive story segment.  The final confrontation between protagonists and antagonists proves to be the most artificial construct of all, where editing alone creates the tension, not the clash of goal and obstacle, desire and counter-desire.

In short, Ben Affleck should quit acting and direct full-time, but he needs to learn to push the script to a final polish before jumping into making the film itself.  With such spectacular directing talent it is a waste to not use equally judicious judgment in finishing the screenplay, as is evident in both Argo and his feature film directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.  Still, audiences eagerly await his next work.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise

In the promised follow-up to our last article, Turn that Scene on its Head, today we will be discussing an exercise to assist in pepping up your scenes by taking an ordinary situation and making it extraordinary.

Stock photo of two businessmen boxing, a comical metaphor for an outrageous writing exercise.
Why: The golden rule of entertainment in any form is DON’T BE BORING.  Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing “safely” where their characters act and react as would be expected of a normal person under similar circumstances, resulting in the scene being both predictable and dull.  Audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not bored to death.

Purpose: To turn a predictable scene into an interesting one by altering a character’s reaction to changing circumstances.

Challenge: Take an existing scene (or write a new one) in which a character finds himself or herself in a situation that has just changed.  Consider what the normal reaction might be for a character in those circumstances and then flip things around and have him/her react in a way that is diametrically opposite.  The reaction should be outrageous and unexpected.  Next, play out the consequences of this reaction.  You will then need to write a justification for this behavior (which may or may not appear in the same scene).

RULES:

  • For purposes of this exercise, your character’s reaction should be diametrically and outrageously opposite of what is previously written or normally expected. The more outrageous, the better.
  • The exercise works best when the situation is very normal or mundane. This lends more impact to the outrageous behavior which follows. (Need a little inspiration? Notalwaysright.com is a gold mine.)

EXAMPLES:

  • An office worker is called into his boss’s office and sacked.  The former employee doesn’t cry or beg to keep his job, he rejoices.
  • A young woman has just been asked out on a date by the man of her dreams.  Her reaction?  She starts screaming bloody murder.
  • A young man discovers he’s just won the lottery jackpot and this makes him very, very angry.
  • A mother’s oldest child has just moved out to go to college.  Instead of crying her eyes out she breaks out the wine coolers and redecorates the child’s room.
  • A married man comes home to find his wife waiting for him.  She promptly demands a divorce.  The man can barely contain his joy.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

Challenge yourself by making the exercise more difficult:

  • Attempt to justify the character’s unexpected reaction within the scene.
  • Add a double twist by having the character enter the situation expecting one thing but instead receives the opposite.  His unexpected reaction is harder to justify but also very interesting.
  • For an even greater challenge, choose an incident which could go either way, such as a woman just discovering that she has superpowers.  Both positive and negative reactions are expected.  How will you surprise us?

As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner

Book cover for As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner, on Minimalist Reviews.By James Gilmore

As I Lay Dying examines the uncensored inner monologue of family members experiencing deep grief in what is more aptly titled a work of narrative poetry than literary fiction. Seemingly written in a single fever-pitch binge, Faulkner’s poignant discourse and extensive use of symbolism comes to the reader through the enigmatic filter of the inner mind.

As I Lay Dying warrants close study and an open mind. It is not for everyone.

Rating:  4 / 5

1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint

By James Gilmore

Eric Flint’s 1632 is an alternative history science fiction novel about a small town in present day West Virginia that is suddenly transported back in time to Germany during the devastating Thirty Years’ War in the year 1632.  At its heart, 1632 is a romantic view of classic American ideals clashing with and conquering those of the oppressed, war-torn 17th century continental Europe, pushing normal small town folk into extraordinary circumstances.

Book cover for 1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint, on Minimalist Reviews.

Eric Flint executes the unusual and exceptionally difficult premise with marvelous ease and methodical reasoning, exploring the promise of the premise with detailed thoroughness.  Despite reviews which misleadingly describe the book as “action packed”  1632 is mostly a relationship-oriented piece with a few periods of intense action counterpointed against extended laconic sections of blossoming romance.

The plentiful characters populating the novel surprise the reader with their variance, color, and very human likeability, which makes the exploration their relationships a pleasure, even if the story does get bogged down in a disproportionate amount of romance during the second act.  The large cast prevents great depth in character development.  Regardless, it’s obvious to the reader that Flint is an author who genuinely loves his characters.

One of the greatest shortcomings of 1632 is its failure to live up to the high stakes generated by the premise.  Main characters have things pretty easy and rarely (if ever) actually lose anything of value, while any obstacles that do arise are circumvented without great difficulty.  Greater challenges and higher stakes conflict are needed in a world where innumerable dangers lurk in the shadows.  Unfortunately, the dangers threaten but seldom actually emerge from the periphery.

Eric Flint’s 1632 may be an acquired taste for most, but don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you are in the mood for something new, unique and quasi-historical.

Rating:  3.5 / 5