Ahem, sorry. Once you read a lot of Film Crit Hulk, it’s hard to talk any other way for a while. Regardless of Film Crit Hulk’s stylistic choice to WRITE LIKE HULK ALL THE TIME, WHICH MAKES SENSE BECAUSE HE IS HULK, he is one of the best thinkers on storytelling that I’ve ever read.
I’ve been a fan of his blog and his posts on Badass Digest for a long time. There is simply no one writing about storytelling the way he does, in a way that both opens my eyes and resonates with my beliefs about storytelling. This post, for instance, on the importance of dramatizing characters, told through the lens if criticizing the recent Man of Steel, is a must-read if you’re interested in any kind of storytelling, even if you haven’t seen the movie and never plan to. (I have never seen the movie and never plan to. Superman is not my jam.)
His archive is a treasure trove of meditations on writing and film-making, and now he’s written a book: Screenwriting 101. Disregard the pedestrian title. The first 2/3s of this book are a meditation on the purposes and paths of storytelling. After a wonderful exegesis on why humans tell stories at all, he goes through traditional, often reductive, ways to look at storytelling, like the 3 act structure, or the hero’s journey. He talks about why they became prevalent, and why they are flawed ways to look at telling a story. One of his big points is that the ways we analyze stories as academics, breaking them down into component parts or repeatable beats, is not very helpful for learning how to build stories, because these maps mistake form for function. It is not important that the hero refuses the call, per se, it is important who the hero is and why he refuses the call, if he refuses the call.
The Hulk talks about viewing stories through a lens of character and theme, which is something that works very well for me. He talks about economy, doing the most with the least words or screen time, and the importance of empathetic characters. Every scene should dramatize character and theme, ever character should dramatize the theme and other characters, the theme should show us things about the characters…
And most importantly, he talks about the how: approaches to constructing (“breaking”) stories, to figure out their beats. His character trees are fairly standard, but the idea of looking at the arc of each relationship between two people, making each person represent a different way of looking at the theme, is something that I find very helpful.
I’ve often felt when wrestling with a novel that it’s like punching a pillow, or trying to put together (or take apart) a very complicated knot. Each piece connects to every other piece, and pulling one throws the whole thing off. Film Crit Hulk does not deny or try to minimize the difficulty and complexity of telling a story. Instead he outlines various tools for thinking about it, and then he talks about how knowing these things is good, but practice is more important, that the writing itself teaches you–something I’ve always believed.
Looking too much at theme can sound like it leads to preachy stories, but I would argue that it actually makes a story feel more cohesive. The challenges that a character needs to go through to grow should reflect the theme of the story, and so, in a well constructed story, every scene will dramatize both character and theme. I’m breaking down a story right now where the theme is the importance of finding one’s own moral compass, and of the danger of all-or-nothing moral thinking. A theme like that can lend itself to an infinity of events and choices to dramatize it, so grounding it in a particular set of characters, time and place (in this case 12th century Europe, involving the key players in the church controversies of the time), narrows in the set of possible choices.
I have a love-hate relationship with writing manuals. Often they feel too prescriptive, or they make the endeavor seem easy, which it is not. Even to write a trite, flat novel takes a lot of time and work. Film Crit Hulk’s book acknowledges the difficulty, and explores the ways that we can think about stories not to make them easier, but to get deeper into them, to understand how they work.
Film Crit Hulk always comes back to our human reasons for needing stories, and that resonates with me. Many of the books I read at NYU this past semester with Zadie Smith were writers wrestling with the question of whether it’s even moral to tell other people’s stories. Nabokov in Pnin, and David Foster Wallace in everything he wrote. Richard Yates, in Easter Parade. Those books are interesting to me, but not for that question, but because they also wrestle with the question of how to tell stories morally, not just if. Film Crit Hulk has done his wrestling with that (HE VERY STRONG) and come up with some helpful ideas and ways of thinking about story, and he writes about them in a funny and passionate way.