History of Violence

by Mike Shea on 14 April 2006

A isn't a great movie, but it has a few things in it that really hit the mark. There are actors in this movie that are better than the movie deserves, including Ed Harris and William Hurt. The movie takes simple stereotypical characters and stretches them out a bit. Low-man gangsters get just enough camera time to show their quirkiness. Ed Harris's character and dialog perform very well, though they do spend too much attention on the eye. Carl Fogarty just doesn't seem to have anything to him if it weren't for the eye.

What makes good is a feature I love in storytelling: telling only part of the story. Imagine a great epic storyline that travels for perhaps 40 years or even longer. Now take only the most interesting moment in that storyline and show or tell only that sliver. The audience is forced to fill in the blanks from their imagination and often that imaginary storyline is different than everyone else's, including the director. Often, it can be better.

The original Star Wars had a lot of this. They drop names of history all throughout the movie. Ben Kenobi fought with Luke's father during the clone wars. Darth Vader killed all the Jedi and now he is the only one left. Luke's father was a hell of a pilot and a good friend. Han has debts to pay. The whole movie is just a sliver of a much larger storyline and every vision of the clone wars and Vader's hunt of the Jedi was probably better than the one Lucas vomited forth twenty five years later. The story was better left in our head.

has this. The story only tells a sliver of a much larger storyline that goes back and forward a great distance. Our imagination can help build the rest, we don't need to see it, and that makes the story greater than the 90 minutes on the screen.

I try to use this in my own stories. Great wars occurred a decade earlier, two thousand years before that something horrible happened to the cities of the southern empires, characters live deep and rich lives before they ever begin the tale in any story. I don't try to explain everything, it's enough to give a nudge in the right direction to the reader and let them make of it what they will. In this method, the reader becomes as important to the story as the writer. The story the reader receives may be completely different than the story the author writes.

In comic book drawing, there is an element called "prospective" where one draws a single dot somewhere in or around the frame. All of the horizontal lines from the tops of buildings and windows to the streets all end up going to this single dot. This gives the reader a three dimensional perspective instead of just a flat view. Sometimes this dot is outside of the frame itself; the perspective is outside the point of view of the reader. Storytelling has this same concept. Take the most important moment in a character's life and take it outside of the story you're writing.

Bill Murray's character in Rushmore, Herman Blume, is like this. He was a Vietnam vet who never seemed to get over the war or his life afterwards. He sees Max Fisher's focus and drive and is attracted to it like a moth to flame but he doesn't even have the energy to get pissed at his adulterous wife. We can only imagine what his life was like, but all of it is summed up in a single line: "Yeah, I was in the shit."

We see this again in the movie "The Cell" (not that awful movie about cell phones, but the movie about the psycho who locks women up in glass cells and drowns them). The detective who is trying to learn the location of the psychopath's last victim states something like: "Horrible things can happen to a little kid. They don't have to turn into psychopaths."