Last week while talking to my creative writing class about various structures they might try fitting their fiction into I found myself suddenly using the movie The Hangover as an example of a classic story form. My students, all of whom save two had seen the movie, were excited to talk about something they actually liked and engaged in willingly outside of class. “Oh yeah, that movie was so funny!” they exclaimed while I tried to backtrack a little in order to make sure they understood that we were still having a constructive, academic conversation. We’d talked a bit about journey stories already, and several students had attempted writing road trip stories, knowing from reading our textbook that it’s usually a bad idea to write a scene that places one character alone in a car unless they are thinking about something active outside of the car, a flashback maybe, since a one-person scene tends to lack energy or conflict, two things that stories thrive on. So I ask them, “Why do you think the writers chose to place four men together in this car? Why not two?” One student said that if there were only two guys the story couldn’t have existed because one of the guys has to go missing for the plot to go on. “Okay, good point, but why four? What is each character doing in this movie? How does each one play an important role in propelling the plot?” That’s when the conversation improved. We talked about how each character has a vastly different personality from the others and how they are really archetypes. The ringleader, Phil, is the reckless antihero. Zach Galifianakis’ character plays the fool, the trouble maker and comic relief. Ed Helms, or Stu, is the straight man, the conscience of the group, albeit a somewhat warped one since he’s lying to his overbearing girlfriend to go on this trip. And, finally, there’s the main character, Doug, absent for most of the film, who is the catalyst for most of the events we watch. He’s missing. His friends can’t remember why and have to find him and get him back to his bride who is waiting anxiously back home.
Maybe this wasn’t “literature” so to speak, but I could totally imagine Shakespeare writing a similar plot-driven comedy that concluded, of course, with a wedding, all of the characters safe and happy in the end (besides maybe Stu’s witch of a girlfriend who didn’t deserve to be). There wasn’t a big, deep message in this movie, right? I mean, what would we take away from this? Don’t drink whatever the weird brother-in-law-to-be is serving. Try counting cards at a Vegas casino; it’s worth it. Lie to your partner as long as you can so s/he doesn’t know you’ve totally screwed up. Vacations full of debauchery are are good idea as long as you make it home in one piece. These aren’t lessons. They’re jokes.
We aren’t supposed to learn anything from this movie. We’re supposed to be entertained. This, in my opinion, is an important lesson for young writers to learn. First, young grasshoppers, you must entertain your readers. Then, once you’ve got them within your grasp, you can do other cool stuff: teach them, make them uncomfortable, inspire them, break their hearts, etc.
I encourage my students to watch movies and good television all the time. (We’ve also talked about shows like the brand new, hour-long drama, Parenthood, as well as Big Love, Weeds, and True Blood.) Maybe this is bad. Maybe I should feel guilty about it. Molly Giles, in her visit here last week, mentioned that it seems like many of the writers she sees in her MFA program at the University of Arkansas are really good at showing what’s happening in a story but are terrible at getting inside the characters’ heads, and she blames moving pictures: TV, movies, etc. Someone else in the workshop suggested that it might be our over-reliance on the “Show, don’t tell.” mantra we’ve been worshipping since the imagists, in which case, it’s William Carlos Williams’ fault.
I’m not sure who’s to blame for students’ inability to write a contemplative scene, but it may be my fault, too. I’ve seen too many stories from beginning writers that start with a paragraph or two of exposition that spells out what we’re supposed to take from the story before it’s even started. Another common story start that I want to strangle out of my students is the one where the first two or three scenes are setting up the real story: We had been best friends for ten years…. I was driving with my friends cross country…. I loved that girl more than anything…. Ughh. Often, I want to tell them to just stop writing about love or friendship or whatever it is that seems so comfortable to them that they tell it like they’re writing instructions for how to [fill in the blank]. But I’m a firm believer that no subject is unworthy of being written about. It’s not the subject that matters, it’s the way the subject is handled, and that’s where television and movies come in. If they can’t pull us in, we won’t watch and they’re doomed. Same with short stories.
Am I a bad teacher? Am I ruining my students’ ability to write “real literature”? I don’t know, but in my defense, we read lots of literary stuff too (Raymond Carver, Charles Baxter, Wells Tower…), but even when they say that they really enjoyed one of these stories, they never get as excited as they do when I say, “Hey, have you guys seen Californication?”