Saturday, January 1, 2011

Writing with Grit

I’ve been gushing about the movie True Grit since I saw it last week. And I’m not the only one who’s gushing. Check out this witty post by author extraordinaire Meg Cabot about the film and her admiration of its main character: http://tinyurl.com/24t8na3

I went into this movie not knowing what to expect. I knew zilch about the story—I hadn’t seen the original John Wayne film, and I hadn’t read the book. Sure, the trailer (check it out here: http://tinyurl.com/355mxwe) looked compelling...tough guys on horses, Johnny Cash singing...what's not to love?

But trailers and I have a troubled relationship.

They’ve fooled me before. You know how it is...you see a great ad for a movie, and when you get to the theater and settle in with your overpriced bottled water and your Junior Mints, you find that the only good scenes and snappy dialogue are in that three-minute advertisement. Then you have to sit there for the other 117 minutes, because you paid $8.00 and bought snacks and it just seems wasteful to leave.

But this was not the case with True Grit, which is fantastic.

And what about it is so fantastic, you ask? That’s a good question, and one that’s worthy of a “writing advice” post.

When I see a movie, I can’t just sit there and watch. I can’t stop myself from analyzing the writing—the character development, the dialogue, the symbolism, the cultural commentary. It's a writer thing, and my husband finds it quite obnoxious.

“Can’t you just watch the movie?” hubby asks. “Not really,” I say.

As soon as True Grit began, I knew it was going to be good. I was transported to a long-ago, far-away place. I met interesting, complex people. I joined them on a harrowing journey. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. No damn way was I going to the ladies’ room.

So let’s analyze why this movie kept me stuck in my chair for two hours:

1. The beginning.

I equate the first few minutes of a film with the first chapter of a novel. That's a crucial time when I, as the reader or viewer, need to be drawn into the story. In True Grit, the narrative starts with a compelling voice—that of the main character, Mattie Ross (played by the amazing Hailee Steinfeld). Mattie begins to recount what happened to her when she was fourteen, after her father was senselessly murdered by a drifter.

A life disrupted by tragedy is a gripping start to any story. But although Mattie has lost her father in the worst way, she’s not going to sit around and grieve like a girl of her age and era is supposed to. Instead, she vows to avenge her father’s death by finding his murderer, Tom Chaney, and bringing him to justice.

You go, girl! I like her already, don’t you? And this leads me to another reason why True Grit is such a well-constructed story...

2. The protagonist.


Mattie rules. She’s a badass. She’s got girl-power at a time when girls are supposed to be—and for the most part, are—powerless.

She haggles with grown men who try to cheat her financially, she isn’t afraid to sleep in a room filled with dead bodies (blech!), and she cleverly (and humorously) gets her way by threatening legal action. It seems that people feared litigation even in the 1870s.

Getting back to Meg Cabot’s post about her admiration for Mattie, which I share—this girl's got grit. She tells the hardened, drunken Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) that she wants to hire him to find Tom Chaney because she has heard that Cogburn is a man with “true grit.” But in reality, Mattie has grit too—hence the double-meaning in the title.

As Cabot says, Mattie has to "endure hangings, gunfights, stabbings…If my dad were murdered and I had to go through all of the things above in order to see justice served, there is a high likelihood I might just say, 'Sorry, Dad. Avenging your death is way too much work.'"

Seriously! That's way way way too much work and pain and gore. Honey, I would've been out of there when all that Wild West dust started to dry out my skin.

But Mattie endures. That’s not to say she’s a one-dimensional dynamo. She’s strong, but her vulnerability is evident in subtle ways—such as when she’s looking at her dead father’s gun and other belongings, and her eyes fill with tears. This quietly reveals the deep feelings Mattie has but is too tough to show. These moments are what make her character so complex and real.

And while we’re talking about complexity, let’s move on to another thing that makes me rave about this film:

3. The supporting characters.

What the hell is up with the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf? (played brilliantly by Matt Damon). It’s hard to know what to make of this guy. He’s all arrogance and bravado and “I’m a Texas Ranger” in his southern drawl while he shows Mattie his badge and expects her to become his starry-eyed groupie.

But when she doesn’t—when she’s highly unimpressed and verbally spars with him—he’s clearly hurt. He’s angry. He doesn't appreciate that she's what he calls "saucy." Check out this scene between them: http://tinyurl.com/235o2cv, and pay close attention to the shocked stare and silence from LaBoeuf when Mattie asks "Why have you been ineffectually pursuing Chaney?"

Oh, that dialogue is fantastic. The pause is priceless. LaBoeuf got owned.

But why does he care what Mattie thinks? She’s a kid, and he’s a grown man, so why does he want her approval so badly? And is LaBoeuf actually as confident as he seems?

Hardly.

The dude has insecurities and self-doubt. He does the wrong thing one moment and the right thing the next. This is why he’s such a compelling character. It’s also interesting to note the male-female dynamic between LaBoeuf and Mattie. He seems to like her just fine until she back-talks him and gets the better of him in their war of words. She cracks wise. This annoys him, because...well, it just isn’t done in the Wild West. Girls are supposed to shut up and  fetch some water down by the stream or whatever. Fortunately, LaBoeuf grows over time and learns to give Mattie the respect she deserves...but not before showing her a ton of sexist scorn.

Rooster Cogburn is interesting, too. He’s old, he’s grizzled, he’s got one eye and a drinking problem. You’d expect him to be a strong-and-silent type, but...not so much. The man gabs. He gabs like he’s your neighbor lady with the curlers and the cigarette whose gossipy conversation you desperately avoid.

But while Rooster is talking, we learn important things about him. We learn that he had a son, and he doesn’t see that son anymore, and maybe it’s because Rooster “talked rough to him,” even though “he didn’t mean anything by it.” It's through these little details that a sympathetic and complex character is formed.

4. Imagery

There are many compelling images in True Grit, such as the mysterious man on horseback dressed in a bearskin, the scene where Rooster carries a delirious and snake-bitten Mattie to safety through a snowstorm, and the first moment that Mattie sees LaBoeuf—when he’s sitting on a porch with his boots perched on the railing, his face lit up by the glow of a match. Imagery like this is important—whether it’s done with cinematography or words.

I'm done gushing now. There’s so much more to praise in True Grit, and so much that writers can learn from it—more than I can go into here. If you want an example of a well-constructed story to help you with your own writing, check out the film!