In last week’s blog post, I talked about how you can learn to be a better writer by rereading your favorite books. Great authors have a lot to teach us. But you can also learn a lot from stories that don’t live up to your expectations. This isn’t nearly as much fun as learning from a master, but you’re not getting that time back either way, so you may as well get something out of it.
I recently had this experience watching the move Aloha. I was really looking forward to the movie. I usually like Bradly Cooper, Emma Stone, and Rachel McAdams. It’s set in Hawaii, which is a beautiful backdrop. And the story seemed to have potential. But somewhere along the line, things went horribly wrong. I decided to mine the experience for a blog post on what I wish Aloha’s screenwriters had remembered about storytelling.
1) Use the setting to set the stage: Hawaii is a beautiful place and it has a history and an ambience that can lend a distinct feel to a movie. But the folks who filmed Aloha wasted their lovely location. You see very little of the landscape and the characters rarely seem tied to their surroundings. A couple of characters do talk about the mythology of the islands, but as a viewer, I didn’t feel at all connected to the locale. And other than one scene where Bradley Cooper tries to convince a native Hawaiian to allow them use of their land, and the Hawaiian man talks about how important the land is to his people, there is very little that happens in this movie that feels like it had to happen in Hawaii. The movie could have been called Cleveland and it wouldn’t have changed much. The setting of a movie or novel should impart a feel to the story and should affect the way the characters behave or what they believe or how they speak. It should inform the plot in specific ways. Choose your setting purposely for what it adds to the story.
2) Characters need depth: Emma Stone’s character was meant to be a happy, positive contrast to Bradley Cooper’s quiet, somewhat cynical persona. Unfortunately, the development of these characters didn’t go much deeper than these surface traits. Emma’s character was so chipper all the time that she was just plain annoying. Not only did this get tiresome, but it made it hard to believe in her as a love interest or as a person whose opinions should be taken seriously. And believing these things was vital to the story line. Bradley just came across as flat. We heard about problems in his past, and saw him interact with his present and former love interests, but none of it seemed to really affect him. He floated on top of everything, emotionally speaking. This lack of depth in the characters made it very difficult to care about the story and the consequences to the characters. They felt more like stereotypes than real people, and who cares what happens to a stereotype? In order for a viewer (or reader) to care, we need to know what makes a character tick. We need to feel like they are real people with something at stake. This can’t be accomplished with shallow characterization. Dig deep and get us inside your character’s head and heart.
3) Relationships must feel authentic: Aloha is a movie about relationships, and yet none of them felt real. Bradley Cooper’s character goes from being annoyed by Emma Stone’s character to being in love with her in the space of a shopping montage. There is no event or conversation or conversion to explain this change of heart, so it doesn’t feel believable. The same can be said about Rachel McAdams’s character, who goes from seeming happily married, to ready for divorce, to deciding it is worth sticking it out with very little explanation of why she keeps changing her mind. Instead of taking us on an emotional roller coaster, the writers just left me with a bad case of whiplash. Just like in real life, fictional relationships must be built on something real, and your readers need to see a relationship progressing to buy in. If your characters change their minds (or hearts) about something, make sure we know why.
4) Too many subplots and characters dilute a story: Aloha tried to be too many things at once and wound up doing nothing well. It was a romance, a story of redemption, a political opinion piece, a comedy . . . There were nine or ten recurring characters that impacted the plot. There were relationships between the protagonist and his current love interest, his former love interest, his daughter, his boss, his former love interest’s husband, his coworkers, a native Hawaiian leader . . . you get the idea. Because of all of these characters and all of these story lines, the writers weren’t able to spend significant time developing any of them. This is one of the reasons that they ended up with unlikeable characters and unbelievable relationships. The same holds true for books. Readers can only get attached to so many characters and follow so many story lines before they start getting distracted. Decide what your story is about and tell that story. A few subplots add depth to a story. Too many just bury it.
I have only walked out of two movies in my life, but I almost walked out of Aloha. Your readers will face a similar decision when reading your book—keep reading or put the book down. Give them a well-chosen setting, compelling characters, believable relationships, and a tight story, and they won’t feel the need to say “aloha.”