Monday, March 24, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: The Princess Bride

Our Netflix disc arrived damaged a couple of weeks ago, leaving us with a Saturday evening planned movie night and no movie. Too tired to get creative, we turned to our tried and true stash of films and decided to watch The Princess Bride.

Like many people, we’ve watched this 1987 film directed by Rob Reiner so many times that we can quote much of it by heart. If you’re a fan…well, go ahead…take a moment here to relive some of your favorite lines with relish. “Have fun storming the castle!” is one of my staples, though there are many others that pop up in our conversations (sometimes in ways that make sense and sometimes just randomly…)

Although we’ve watched it many times, it had been a while since we’d seen it, and I found myself watching it with more freshness than usual. In particular, I found myself intrigued to realize just how low-budget this endearing and enduring film looks, and how much the lack of “wow effects” of any sort doesn’t hurt its grand storytelling one bit. William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel of the same name, does a terrific job of getting to and sticking with the heart of the story. Yes, it’s brilliantly casted and acted with incredible panache and humor, but if the characters and plot hadn’t been drawn so well, I don’t think it would have become such a beloved classic.

Here are a few takeaways from The Princess Bride for us as storytellers.

1)      A great framing device goes a long way.

Think about how different this film would be if it had just been a straightforward narrative. If we had started with Buttercup and her Farm Boy, we would have entered right away into a fairy-tale world. Instead we start in the “here and now” of 1987, in a small boy’s room when the boy is home from school sick. His grandfather arrives to read him a story, one his father used to read to him and one he also read to the boy’s father when he was little. We can tell this story is golden gem for the grandfather, but the boy at first is resistant. We enter the story via his youthful skepticism and enjoy the chuckles that come from his initial resistance to the romantic elements in the tale. (The grandfather has promised him adventure, so why is there all this kissing?)

The film doesn’t just use this storytelling device at the beginning and end. Periodically, throughout the tale, we’re interrupted by the boy’s questions or exclamations. The action essentially freezes (or sometimes jumps ahead…a very useful transition tool!) while the grandfather responds to the boy’s reactions. So we’re never allowed to forget for a moment that we’re traversing the realm of story. We traverse it with the storyteller and story listener, falling as deeply and magically into the story as they do. I think this is as close as a movie has ever come to replicating the magic of falling into a book.

2)      It can be important to know what your characters want.

This is one of the first rules of good storytelling, and one that teachers tell their writing students over and over. I can still hear variations of it in the voice of one of my literature professors in college! But we really see it in action here. Buttercup and Westley want nothing more than to be together (and believe that nothing can stop true love!) but there are plenty of obstacles, often caused by things that the antagonists want, like starting a war with Guilder.

My favorite instance of knowing just what a character wants, however, comes via Inigo Montoya. Inigo never lets us forget his quest: a six-fingered man killed his father when he was eleven, and he has spent his life training as a swordsman so that when he eventually catches up with this villain, he will be able to defeat him. After first declaring, of course: “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” With a set-up like that, we know we’re bound to see a six-fingered man before long, bound to get the scene where the two of them finally fight, and bound to hear Inigo utter that line he’s spent his life rehearsing. Our anticipation builds because of the set-up. And the pay-off, when we finally get it, is terrific.

3)      Sometimes it’s smart to play against type.

Sometimes a character seems utterly predictable because of what he or she looks like or appears to represent. On second glance, we learn that there is much more to the character than meets the eye – and that, in fact, a part of his or her personality seems to be directly opposite of our expectations. The supporting character Fezzik is a perfect example here. An enormous giant, he’s originally hired by Vizzini (actually working for Prince Humperdinck) to help kidnap the princess. He’s clearly valued by Vizzini for his giant size and brute strength, and we initially expect him to be thuggish.

It turns out that Fezzik is gentle and kind. He hates hurting anyone and doesn’t think it’s “sportsman-like” to take unfair advantage in a fight. He also has a love for rhyming games, a game we see Inigo, his good friend, encourage him in (one of the many reasons we come to love Inigo). All of these elements make Fezzik endearing, but especially so because they seem to play against our initial impression and the expectations of other characters.

Creative Prompts and Exercises

·        Take a story you know well, either one you’ve written or an old tale you could easily re-tell, and create a framing device for it. Is the story being shared with a child? Could the story be an important memory passed on from one generation to the next? Is someone telling the story at an important occasion (a wedding, a funeral, a reunion) a setting that will have more meaning for us at the end when we understand its significance more fully because of the story?

·        Create a story with at least three characters who know exactly what they want. Make one character on a quest of some sort. Make one character want something that will potentially block the first character from getting what he or she wants. Create another character whose goal is to help the first character achieve their goal (thinking through carefully why it’s so important for that character to help the first one).

·        Create a character profile for a “stock” character who looks predictable. This could be a hero, jock, beautiful princess, giant, bookish poet, or frail and elderly woman. The idea is to give the character certain traits that we expect that kind of person to have. Make them look predictable, and then have them do, say, or be a certain way that plays completely against that stock type.

·        Just for fun…if you’re a fan of The Princess Bride, try writing a “missing scene.” What was going through Westley’s head on the day the Dread Pirate Roberts first threatened to kill him? How did Humperdinck choose Buttercup to wed? What was life like for Inigo the day after he saw his father die? How did Vizzini meet up with Fezzik and Inigo? The possibilities are endless. Remember, it’s okay to play in someone else’s fictional universe, and it can give you good practice in writing dialogue and actions for characters whose quirks and motivations you already understand.


OlDave said...

Say, it looks a lot like a worthwhile "Storyteller's Workbook" might show up in bookstores in a little while.

Beth said...

That might be fun! I have a lot of these posts up my sleeve, so we shall see. :)

Erin said...

A wonderful post about one of my very favorite movies! Great prompts - I suspect I'll be returning to this post! As I think you know, Fezzik is my favorite character in the movie. He really is such a joy. And the grandfather-grandson bonding process through the vehicle of a well-told story is just priceless. Really shows the wonder of great storytelling and of cross-generational quality time. Anyway, an excellent post!

Beth said...

Erin, glad you enjoyed the post and the prompts! And yes, I remember how much you love Fezzik. There's something a tad bit Hagrid-ish about him, isn't there? (Or perhaps I should say it the other way around, since Fezzik came first!)

Erin said...

Yes, Fezzik, Hagrid, Hurley... All hefty guys with huge hearts. :) I also happen to know another fella like that... ;)