I Know What You Did Last Summer and Other Ways to Provoke Guilt

This week I finished reading I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I also watched the pilot episode of Ozark on Netflix. Both stories had scenes which illustrate the psychological impact of guilt.

In Duncan’s novel, Julie receives a piece of mail. In the envelope is a letter which contains the title sentence: “I know what you did last summer.” In Ozark, Marty confronts his murderous drug boss’ accusations. Marty accuses him of “fishing” for information, which he later admits. Marty’s partner, Bruce, and his co-conspirators, however, start babbling, admitting to information only a guilty party would know.  Big mistake. But that’s guilt.

That one sentence – “I know what you did last summer – causes Julie and her friends to engage in behavior that confirms their guilt. In Ozark, the guilty parties confess their sins before their accuser even knows for certain there is anything to confess. In both situations, it was the “spotlight” that caused the discomfort and led to the mistakes in behavior.

What I am calling “the spotlight” is a metaphor for guilt. In normal, non-narcissistic, non-sociopathic people, something changes inside of us when we do something wrong. Because we have violated our own ethical standards, or done something that we know will hurt someone else, or engaged in activity that is illegal or immoral, an inner spotlight flips on and shines down on the activity. It continues to shine, even while we’re doing and thinking about other things. That continuous spotlight reminds us that our behavior is incompatible with what we know is right. That’s why, when someone questions us about the bad behavior, our bodies and minds betray us. Lie detectors are designed to pick up on this. The mismatch between our beliefs and our actions causes a physical reaction that can be detected electronically.

But the lie detector is not necessary.  The spotlight tricks us into believing that everyone can see what we’ve done. When someone comes too close to discovering the truth, we think the spotlight is growing bigger and brighter. That’s why people confess. The hot brightness of the spotlight is too uncomfortable, too relentless. The weight of the guilty conscience becomes so heavy that confessing the misdeed, and accepting the consequences, seems less painful.

And getting rid of the guilt is a good thing. We should never wallow in guilt. Guilt, by itself, is not helpful. Nevertheless, the ability to feel guilt separates normal human beings from narcissists and sociopaths. The fact that narcissists and sociopaths exist is one of the reasons why lie detectors cannot be totally trusted. Some people don’t have spotlights. Either they are born without one, or they’ve ignored them for so long that the light eventually goes out. In either case, if you can’t feel remorse, you also can’t bond with other humans.

Guilt is part of the survival package that allows us to live together peacefully in community. Guilt is not an end to itself. It’s just a normal human emotion. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is the pathway to remorse. It is an invitation to apologize, make restitution to the abused party, and eventually be forgiven and restored to the community. People who lack the ability to feel remorse can never be restored to the people they’ve harmed. They go from person to person wreaking havoc and leaving hurt, victimized people in their wake. Society needs to be protected from such people.

But if you have done something you know is wrong, remember that the spotlight is there to help you. It’s a signal that something is broken. It should inspire further action to rectify the situation.

However…if someone says “I already know what you did, you might as well confess,” they might be bluffing! Confess at your own risk!

 

Peace and love,

Raven

 

 

 

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Adapting a Novel to the Big Screen

My dream is to write a novel that becomes a movie. I’ve written screenplays, but I am in love with novels. I love reading stories, and I love writing them. Writing a novel is a big undertaking, but I’m excited for the challenge. At the end of the process, you have something that is absolutely yours. That is a special feeling.

However, writing a novel that will, hopefully, one day become a movie, requires a degree of forethought. As stated in the video, there has to be enough “story” in the story to make it interesting for viewers. Novels usually have a lot of internal dialogue and description. In a movie, internal dialogue has to be conveyed through actual dialogue, body language, and/or facial expression.

Similarly, in a book, describing the setting is free. But, on a movie set, creating the setting requires enormous amounts of money and man hours. It’s good practice to keep these things in mind as you write (or rewrite).

I think the following questions are helpful when creating a story you hope will be adaptable to the big screen:

1) Is there enough that actually “happens” in the story? Characters should be performing actions and speaking dialogue that reflect what’s going on internally. If you were to see the story’s events in real life, would they still be interesting?

2) If you are a new writer, would the story be economical to produce? Period pieces and elaborate space explorations are fabulous, but expensive. You increase the odds that a small or mid-range producer would be interested in the work if the price tag isn’t too hefty.

3) Are you able to write screenplays? This seems obvious. But some novelists don’t appreciate how much different a screenplay is from a novel. In a screenplay, less is definitely more. Flowery, beautiful language that appeals to readers doesn’t work for producers and directors. Of course, the studio could hire someone to write the screenplay – and they might hire someone else to rewrite the screenplay anyway – but it’s helpful, and potentially more lucrative, if you can do it yourself.

4) Will you be able to handle it, emotionally, when your story gets changed in order to make the story screen-ready? Novelists usually work alone. Screenwriters work as part of a team. The large sums of money and time involved in making a movie mean that lots of people have different opinions. The story will change – sometimes completely – before it makes it to the screen. Is this story your “baby?” If so, you might not be able to tolerate the development process. Pick a story that isn’t too personal, or develop a thick skin if you decide you still want to adapt it.

Adapting a book into a movie is not completely within your control, but there are things you can do to make it more likely. If that’s your goal, spend some time planning your story. A visually appealing story with lots of action, great characters, and snappy dialogue stands a good change of engaging both readers and movie-goers.

Good luck!

And, maybe one day we’ll see your name (and mine!) under the “Based on a novel by…” credit!

Peace and love,

Raven

Making Time to Write

When you’re a beginning screenwriter, actually finding time to write can be the biggest challenge. You’re not getting paid for your writing at first, so you have to balance your desire to write with your need to make money.

If your job is incredibly draining, but you’re serious about being a writer, you might need to find a job that is more compatible with your writing. Or, you might have to commit to being a morning person – or a night owl – and get your writing done before or after work. I am naturally a morning person, and my job starts in the afternoon. So, the best part of my day is reserved for my passion.

“Iliad Bookshop” in North Hollywood, California

Once you decide whether you want to write before work, after work, or during your lunch hour, you must make sure you keep your appointment with yourself. My cell phone alarm has become indispensable. When a habit is new, the toughest part is remembering to do it. Having an alarm that pops us and says “WRITE!” is a great little tool to have.

For some people, writing on the weekends is the only time that will work. This can be challenging, since it’s easy for other things to pop up and challenge one’s commitment. You’ll have to be firm with everyone – friends, family, children, and your own laziness. The weekends are your writing time, period.

The other potential problem with the weekend is that you will have to binge-write. Instead of writing daily, which would allow you to stay in touch with your story throughout the week, you’re playing catch-up on the weekend. If this is your issue, all you have to do is read your story during the week for a few minutes. Even if you don’t have much time, reading parts of your script will keep you engaged until you can sit down and write on the weekend.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Trees in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA

There is no right and wrong time to write. You may have to experiment with different days, times, and places to find what works for you. Don’t give up! Experimenting also helps you get to know yourself as a writer. I know I’m a morning person, for example, as I mentioned, and I prefer to have a block of time to write – at least an hour, preferably two. However, I can sneak writing in for a few minutes here and there if I’m writing a non-fiction piece. For fiction, I need time for my mind to wander without the pressure of the clock. I’ve learned this about myself over time.

I’ve also learned that threats and rewards can help me keep my butt in the chair. If there’s something I want to do (or eat, or watch), I tell myself that I will reward myself with it as soon as I finish x-amount of writing, or as soon as I write for x-number of minutes. This increases my motivation to start. Once I start, I’m fine. Or, sometimes, threats are more effective. If I fail to get x-number of pages written, I will smile and initiate conversation with (fill in the name of someone I really dislike), for example. Rewards tend to work better for me than threats. But just the thought of the threat is enough to make me do what I’m supposed to do!

Most writing gurus recommend that you write every day, but the best plan is whatever works. If Monday/Wednesday/Friday is a schedule you can do consistently, do it! It’s better than pressuring yourself to write every day and failing. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to get into a regular flow. But don’t give yourself too much slack either. If you don’t hold yourself to your commitment, your dream will never become a reality. Once your book is published, or your script is optioned, you will be expected to continue producing lots of content. So you might as well get into the habit now.

Happy writing!

Have a blessed and beautiful weekend,

Raven

New Ways of Telling Stories

It’s fun to think about all the ways we can tell stories: from cave paintings and campfire ghost stories, to mime, stage plays, and movies. Last weekend, I attended a workshop in which the speaker, Chris Pack, discussed how movies are being adapted to virtual reality, changing the story-telling game even more. The above video is an interactive virtual reality horror film called Speak of the Devil.

Every time something new comes out, there are hold-outs who insist that “the old ways” are superior. I usually do not agree. I’m excited by change and evolution. I appreciate all the different story-telling modalities. I like watching movies at home, even on my phone, for example, just as much as I like watching movies in the theater. This depends on the genre, of course, and my mood. But the convenience of sitting in the comfort of home, with all my favorite snacks around me, and my own bathroom nearby, is pretty damn cool. There’s something about putting on my headphones and immersing myself, alone, in a movie, which is special and distinct from sharing the experience with a room full of strangers.

At the same time, reading is and always will be my first love. There’s nothing that can replace my own imagination, which gets to enjoy the most freedom when I’m reading a great book. There’s something self-caring and self-loving about giving myself the time and space to enjoy a good book.

But I’m a fan of new technology, so I am excited about virtual reality and all the other future technology that will help us tell stories. What’s most important is our own interaction with the story. There are different considerations that come with each medium. There are ethical considerations that arise with virtual reality that don’t come up in the same way with books or movies.

If your character-point-of-view in the virtual reality movie is a murderer, for example, and you are given his perspective, could this pose psychological problems? Could it cause permanent trauma? What about explosions, accidents, and sex scenes? Watching something happen, versus participating in it from a first-person perspective, is a different experience. We already have this with games, but game plots are usually pretty limited. The power of a good plot, combined with a first-person “reality” perspective could be quite powerful and influential in both good and bad ways.

So, the future is coming, whether we embrace it or reject it. In order to take our place as storytellers of the future, we have to think about how the technology affects the way the story is told and the impact it could have on the viewer. It’s all very exciting.

Happy storytelling and have a great weekend!

Raven

A Bad Ending: You Get Me

{This is a discussion of the film You Get Me (2017). Director: Brent Bonacorso; Writer: Ben Epstein}

In real life, endings are almost always sad (except the end of a work day).

In movies, however, endings tend to be happy. We know that, in real life, good people die, couples break up, failure happens, and life is not always fair.

But in the movies and on television, we don’t want to see that. We get enough of real life in real life, so we usually want to feel good at the end of a film or show.

However, what happens when a happy ending is, nevertheless, BAD? By bad, I mean, unsatisfying, trite, or too easy.

I watched a teen thriller the other day called You Get Me. I wasn’t expecting much. It was a teen version of Fatal Attraction, basically. But it was better than I thought it was going to be. At first. The cinematography was enthralling, the music was good, and the acting (for the most part) was good.

What sucked was the ending. I wasn’t expecting any surprises, and by gum, I got none! But I started wondering why I was still unsatisfied, even though it ended as expected.

I think I was unsatisfied because I got no final thrust. Given the nature of the story, I wanted to feel a little beaten up by the end. I can live with a trite ending, but please mess with me a little bit first! Make me sweat for it. Make the trite, happy ending feel well-deserved. Don’t make me feel like I received dessert without eating my vegetables. I want to feel so relieved at the end, that, trite or not, I need a break from the tension.

But there was no tension. It’s like, at the end, they scooped mashed potatoes onto a white plate and followed it up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Please, smash some gravy onto those mashed potatoes! Slop some melted chocolate all over that ice cream!

If someone is going to get kidnapped, or if you’re going to kill off some expendable character, for example, stick it right in my face. Show it to me! Make me suffer with the victim for a little while. Don’t turn away, shy. If you’re going to rip off Fatal Attraction, then rip it the fuck off! Give me the creeps, make me feel bad for the villain a little bit, make me want to jump into the screen and get revenge.

Sadly, You Get Me was pretty good until the end. They set everything up nicely then got cold feet. They raised up my expectations a little bit, then kicked me square in the booty. Thanks for playing. Next.

However…if you want to look at pretty people living in Malibu, and you have an hour and a half to spare, You Get Me is not a complete waste of time.

Have a great weekend!

Raven

The Godfather: Storytelling is Manipulation

I watched The Godfather again the other day. I believe it was only my second time all the way through, though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years.

It is one of my favorite movies (duh!), but I started wondering why. The characters are racists, sexists, adulterers, murderers, drug pushers, back-stabbers, liars, and overall criminals. In general, if a movie offends my morality too deeply I’ll stop watching it, regardless of how many awards it has won. So, why do I love these characters, even though, especially in real life, they would not like me?

I like the characters, and the story, because they are spoon fed to me gently. The movie opens with the sad wailing of horns, a refrain that will play over and over throughout the movie. Even if you hadn’t seen the movie, you would get the impression that you were going to see a sad story. You feel ready to empathize.

The Godfather title comes on the screen. It has puppet strings over the “father” part. So, we subtly get the impression that someone is going to be manipulated, or feel out of control. This  prepares us to feel sorry for that situation, to care. We’re not put in a judgmental mood, in other words. Again, we’re ready to empathize.

Next, we see a man with an accent talking to us, looking into the camera. His first words are “I believe in America.” Yes, he turns out to be just another person begging for a favor from Don Corleone, but we don’t know that yet. We’re ready to like this guy and embrace what he has to say.

Next, this guy tells us a story. It’s a riveting and emotional story of a good girl, his own daughter, getting abused. By now, we’re totally sucked in, wondering who’s going to right this terrible wrong. And who does it turn out to be? None other than the Don. We’re ready to approve of whatever punishment the Don metes out to this heartless abuser. The movie has prepped us to accept murder and violence as justified. Why? Family. Family is everything, right? Any one of us would kill for our families, especially our kids.

It’s genius. We don’t discover all their problems until later. By then, we don’t care as much. Michael is our guy, and he’s trying to do the right thing. He just wants to help his father. Plus, he’s sexy. And he’s the marrying kind. We don’t become scared of him until the end, but he has our loyalty by then. By the time people are killing for him and kissing his hand, we’re married to him too, just like Kay. What can we do at that point? (Watch The Godfather II, I guess, which I will do!)

Storytelling, at the end of the day, is manipulation. As storytellers, we have to know how we want our audience to feel, and then not let up until they feel that. In order to do this, however, we have to have empathy. We have to have a genuine understanding of how human beings think and feel. The more natural empathy you have (which is a gift that not everyone has), the better writer you are capable of becoming.

The fact that Coppola, Puzo, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, and the rest of the crew could make me, an arrow-straight, law-abiding, moralistic black female care deeply about a bunch of racist, sexist, murderous Italian men is no small feat. And it’s not just me. My mother saw this film in the theater when she was pregnant with me. She held her pee until the end because she couldn’t bear to miss any of it. Wow!

I hope one day I can write a story that’ll make a pregnant woman hold her pee.

Peace and love,

Raven