J is for Jokes – Being funny is no laughing matter

Groucho Marx - making comedy look easy
Groucho Marx – making comedy look easy

“From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

            Groucho Marx

Just one example of the genius of Groucho Marx, a master of the one-liner. Like all good comedians and comic writers, he made humour look effortless. Indeed, great comedy should look effortless, which is perhaps one of the reasons it often doesn’t get the critical recognition it deserves.

In the world of Film and Literature, comedy rarely gets the same plaudits and appreciation as drama – despite the fact that it takes a huge amount of skill and craft to produce a novel, story or script that can consistently make an audience laugh.

In terms of Oscars, there have been some rare exceptions, like Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ and more recently his ‘Midnight In Paris’ – but both of those excellent films do have that art-house sensibility that allows The Academy to feel they still fulfil their worthy artistic expectations.

In literature, humour also has a relatively lowly status. Casually drop in to conversation the fact that you’ve read everything Tolstoy ever wrote and fellow readers will swoon. Mention that you’ve consumed the entire works of P.G. Wodehose and, if you’re lucky, you will be rewarded with a shrug of the shoulders ‘so what’ gesture. Yet Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett et al (although loved by many) rarely get the full critical acclaim they deserve.

Again, there are exceptions but for humorous works to get lauded by serious critics they almost always have to be attached to a serious issue – like Catch-22, for example.

The real acclaim, awards and respect usually go to the serious, worthy, emotional works – sometimes with justification – but don’t you think it’s time we started taking comedy writers a little more seriously?

After all, as any comedian will tell you – dying is easy, comedy is hard.

This was my 10th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – K is for Keep moving! Write or die.

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G is for Gold! Why I love The Treasure of The Sierra Madre

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This is a short post about why I love the brilliant film, ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ and why I think you will love it too. There will be no spoilers in the post – so read on to find out why I think this classic should be on your viewing list.

Made in 1948 and starring Humphrey Bogart, you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ is just another dated and hackneyed Hollywood adventure film but, for its time, it was a thoroughly modern script and broke many of the standard movie conventions.

Its director, John Huston, was a true firebrand and had a passion for gritty realism in his films. As such, despite misgivings from Warner Brothers, he insisted on shooting almost all of the film on location outside of America. Street scenes were filmed in Tampico, Mexico with the state of Durango serving as bandit country.

The story centres around two out of work drifters, Dobbs (Bogart) and Curtin (played by Tim Holt) living on the bread line and desperately scratching around for the next meal or job offer. During a night in sheltered accommodation they cross paths with a wily retired gold prospector (played by the director’s father, Walter Houston) who regales them with tales of his days panning for gold and of the riches that can be available to a man if he has the heart and the stomach to go out and find them. This sets the scene for the unlikely trio to make a dangerous trek across Mexican bandit country in search of a better life.

Needless to say, the journey isn’t a smooth one, fraught with threats from bandits, Federales and the landscape itself. This is in addition to the most dangerous threat of all – greed and what it can do to a human being.

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Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

The script is excellent, with cracking dialogue including the film’s most famous quote, spoken by one of the Mexican bandits they meet along the way:

‘Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!’

It also includes one of the most convincing and realistic bar fights ever committed to celluloid, from the opening section of the film where Dobbs and Curtin try to extract their unpaid wages from a crooked pay-master.

Thanks to John Huston’s uncompromising vision, a superb script and outstanding performances from its cast, the film went on to win two academy awards – Best Director for John Huston and Best Supporting Actor for his father.

So I urge you to seek out the film and to be entertained, but also to watch one of the most convincing depictions of the power of greed and its corruption of the human spirit. Here’s the original trailer to whet your appetite.

Have you already seen the film? What are your thoughts? Are you a fan? I would love to hear your feedback.

 

This was my 7th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – H is for History – don’t forget the ‘Story’ part!

F is for Films! How thinking cinematically can improve your writing.

Quartz cine film camera
A vintage cine-film camera

I recently heard two different authors mention writing in the context of cinema and came to the realisation that the conventions and style of modern cinema influence my writing too.

The first of these comments was from historical fiction writer, Hilary Mantel. Whilst I am yet to read any of Hilary’s work, Wolf Hall, in particular, is definitely high on my list of books to consume this year. However, in an interview for Open University, she talked of the way she likes to structure and pace her novels as a deliberate attempt to mimic the inter-cutting of scenes in a film. Her preference for this technique is simply due to the fact that she is so fond of reading fiction that uses this style. As a fan of this type of writing myself, and on objective reflection of my long-form fiction, I find that I also adopt the same approach.

That I am also a huge fan of cinema, and have been since a child, is also a factor, but I do think that many readers of modern fiction also expect this more punchy, direct form of fiction. So, what other writing lessons can we learn from the cinema?

Show, don’t tell!

All but the most novice writer is aware of the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice, but even for more experienced scribes, it’s still an easy trap to fall in to. When writing we spend a great deal of time in the heads of our characters and it is very tempting to overtly express every thought and feeling they are experiencing – ‘Bert was unhappy at having to wait for Jenny’ instead of perhaps – ‘Bert thrust Jen’s coat in to her hand and said, “Come on. We’re leaving.”

Unless the film maker has employed the use of a voiceover to relay his character’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t have the option to tell the audience what’s going on inside a character’s mind. They have to show it, through the actions and reactions of the cast. When revising our texts, we should always ask ourselves if there is a way to show how our characters are feeling through what they do and how they do it. Action really does speak louder than words.

Cut to the chase!

As brilliant as older films can be, many of them do suffer from slow pacing and lots of unnecessary padding, which only serves to take the viewer away from the story that is being told. Modern editing and an audience that has become more sophisticated and cine-literate has meant that fewer shots are necessary. As an example, many films from the 50’s and 60’s might have a character stating he is going to travel across town to see his contact at the newspaper office. We would then see him leave the hotel, hail a cab, see at least some of the cab ride, see him arrive at his destination, pay the cab driver, go in to the building . . . . and eventually he would be walking in to the office of the newspaper editor. The modern equivalent would cut out everything after the character has said where he was going, before rejoining the action (perhaps with an establishing shot of the newspaper office) as our protagonist takes a seat in the office. Depending on what the purpose of the office scene was, we may even cut to the end section of their conversation – the piece of information, or character development that we really need to get on with the narrative.

Exactly the same principle can be applied to our writing – get in to a scene as late as you can and get out again as soon as you have achieved your goal. The same goes for redundant characters and details. Unless a character advances the plot, or is a foyle for your protagonist – perhaps as a way to illuminate a new part of their character or motivation – lose them.

Grab the popcorn

The final cinematic nugget I gained was from Keith Morley, an author from my critique group. During a critique of a fellow writer’s short story he suggested that the best way to test some of the theories I have outlined is to take the whole thing very literally. To actually imagine that you are taking a seat in the local cinema and there, on the big screen, your scene is playing out in front of you. Are you happy with what you see? Does the dialogue sound wooden? Do the actions of your characters seem natural and flowing? Would your protagonist really stand up so abruptly, mid sentence? Do you actually need so much exposition? Most of all – is it a film you would pay to watch?

This was a great piece of advice and is an effective way to try to objectively see the scene you are working on.

So, by all means, keep reading and writing, but do make some time to go to the flix once in a while. It can do wonders for your writing.

What are your thoughts on how film and other media can influence your writing? Do you have any other examples to share?

This was my 6th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – G is for Gold! Why I love Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

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