I’ve recently torn apart my urban fantasy novel and tried to put it back together better, stronger, faster. The main character, our hero, had way too much support going into his final confrontation with the Big Bad. I’ve always loved the set-up of the group of mismatched characters forced to band together to fight evil. My ‘darling’ worked against me here.
What was needed was for Jamie, my boy who must become a man to save his dying sister, to feel so desperate that he does something balls-out stupid and gutsy. I threw the complex plot into a crucible and tried to burn away everything that wasn’t Jamie’s last stand.
It got me thinking about some Oscar-winning films that have received a bad rap for beating out “better” films. Specifically, Rocky, Titanic and Gladiator. What all three have in common is a clear, easy-to-root-for main character with a fierce goal.
Rocky, Best Picture of 1976. The other nominees:
All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
Should Network have won Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky’s dark satire of television? Yes. Should All the President’s Men have won Best Adapted Screenplay for its expert winnowing down of the complex Watergate scandal? Yes and yes.
But, though a great movie starts with a great screenplay, in the end, it will add up to more than the sum of its parts. In the end, movies and novels are all about The Story.
Titanic, 1997 Best Picture Winner in this field:
As Good As It Gets
The Full Monty
Good Will Hunting
Sure, the big boat CGI got the headlines. But Titanic won because The Story was clear. Love saves the day.
Quick, in 1000 words or less, who was the hero of LA Confidential?
Don’t get me wrong. I love the movie. But The Story is difficult to tell without resorting to Sid Hudgens-style tabloid headlines–about fifty of them. Would I say Titanic is a better film? No. But I get why it won.
Gladiator was the Best Picture of 2000. The competition:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
I would never defend that Gladiator should have won a Best Screenplay award. But the movie originally had a different ending, with Maximus getting his army and storming Rome. The expensive, complicated plan was scrapped in favor of the simple idea: Maximus had to fight Commodus and restore justice mano a mano. That decision is what gave the movie its power; one man with a burning goal.
So, am I saying dumb down your story so that any thirteen-year-old will think it’s awesome? No. What I am saying is consider this: If you find your novel feels overly complicated and goes on too long at the end, try examining The Story. If you can’t define what that is, you might have a clue as to the work you need to do.