where the big stories are

I recently ran across an interesting – albeit brief – read about the current state of Hollywood. In it, the writers says

Part of Hollywood’s current decay was unavoidable. As a monoculture splintered permanently into niche groups, the idea of a film everybody sees and everybody can’t stop talking about fades further into the cultural past. The rise of cable networks willing to spend serious money on shows like “Game of Thrones” further dents Hollywood’s ability to be the main supplier of big stories.

The article then goes on to discuss how the business model they’ve created has painted them in a corner where heartfelt sincerity is out, out, out and big, big, big profits are in, in, in. Where audiences have, when it comes to summer movie-watching fare, either this superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved -or not) or that superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved – or not).

And if the superhero movies are all basically interchangeable and easily forgotten, where’s the magic in going to the movies? Short answer: there is none. Which is why people are staying home and watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or whatever.

Now, I understand the financial logistics of this. I know foreign markets (China, Russia, Israel, Germany) drive profit. That Hollywood, being a global business – as in the whole world and not just America, a fact we somehow forget here in the States – isn’t necessarily making movies just for the domestic audience which, in truth, feed less and less into their bottom lines.

Really, though, Hollywood knows films that are heavy on action, explosions, dudes in capes and light on dialogue are easily translatable for Chinese, Russian, German audiences. And if your business is making money – and Hollywood’s is – a film that translates easily regardless of borders is, or could be, the way to go.

But they’re forgetting one important fact. They’re ignoring the one thing that makes it harder and harder to get those butts in the seats:

Where are the big stories?

Really. Where’s the frickin’ magic? Why go to the movies anymore? Where’s that one film that slyly incorporates those special effects audiences love while giving us characters audiences care about, feel for and never forget? Because that’s the film this industry needs. Desperately.

Being the relentless optimist I am, I strongly believe you can have action and magic in a film without relinquishing heart and soul.

If you revisit franchises like Harry Potter or even The Hunger Games, those movies ticked a lot of boxes. Centered around strong narratives – remember those? – they both successfully blended the fantastic with emotion. They married action with heart. And they gave audiences necessary, important battles without abandoning reason or hope. Cities didn’t need to crumble, the universe didn’t need to quake and thousands of cars didn’t have to get trampled underfoot for those films to make their point and make an impact on audiences.

You see? If you have a true big story – not just a loud story – you can go simple. If you’re supported by a strong narrative peopled with unique, relatable characters, you can be quiet. And if those people are imbued with hope, heartache, anger, fear, helplessness, frustration, loneliness, doubt, strength, the story they tell, even without the predictable Armageddon, will be unforgettable.

Why? Because no matter how different that person on the screen is from those in the audience, they’ll be speaking the same language. A language which doesn’t rely on translation or destruction or annihilation. A language that can be felt in a place deeper than words.

Emotion.

If you really want to find the big stories in today’s Hollywood, the stories audiences are truly craving – reminder: everyone’s staying home watching cable — that’s where you begin. With what people feel. And if you can bring to life a solid story with a character who is blessed – or cursed – with the impossible and yet is still driven by their hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, disappointments and dread, a person driven by their emotions, that’s where audiences will go. In fact, that’s where audiences will go again and again and again.

I believe if you can reach into someone’s heart, speak to that part of them that wants to feel – it’s why we go to the movies, right? – and reawaken that innate hope we all have being part of something bigger while still entertaining, still dazzling, still scaring and surprising them, they’ll come. They’ll leave their homes, come to the theater, make a night of it and see that film. They will. We’ve seen it happen before. And, god willing, we’ll see it happen again.

But that journey has to begin with the heart.

Because that’s where the big stories are.

 

how to change a life

Interesting lesson I learned today: listening is important.

Let me explain.

Every day, come rain or shine, I take a walk through the nearby park. Shake the dust off. Get away from the computer screen and all those words, words, words I’ve been banging out since the sun came up. You know, just get out and clear my head.

And, on these walks, I’m known to take a moment — a small minute, really — to share a Hello or How are you with those somewhat familiar faces I see, come rain or shine, lingering around, lying on the grass, sleeping on the benches.

Now, granted, many (most? all?) of those faces are homeless and battling addiction and/or psychosis. And many, if not all, of them have been forgotten by those they loved because — and I’m guessing here — of the choices they made. Choices usually driven by addiction, psychosis, hopelessness.

So my kind words, my taking that moment to say Hello and ask How are you? and truly, sincerely listen to what they say may be the only kind word or moment of attention they get that day.

But that’s not the lesson I learned.

On my walk today I ran into a familiar face I hadn’t seen in awhile — not unusual for those faces to disappear, by the way – but this once was clean shaven and sober and HAPPY!

So, after exchanging quick pleasantries, he then said “You changed it for me, man. You took the time, said Hello, wanted nothing, nothing, from me and you were cool. And I thought, Well, fuck, if that cool guy is cool with me, maybe there’s hope. And once I realized there could be hope, I don’t know, man, I got my shit together and just changed it, man. I just changed it. So, thank you.”

Of course I deflected his praise. Reminded him that if anyone changed his direction, it was him. And to keep going. Keep making wise choices. Keep building on his success, however small it might feel. But he’d made a good point. A great point, really.

Which is this…

You never know what will change someone’s life. You never know what will be the one thing, the one small seemingly inconsequential thing, that pushes the Pause button long enough for them to stop and think and reconsider their next choice. And then, because of that small break in the cycle, that pause, that breath, move in a different direction.

It can be as easy as listening to their story. Acknowledging their pain. Agreeing that, yeah, it sucks and, shit, wouldn’t it be nice to get a break? It could be something as simple as treating them with respect and kindness and patience no matter how deep their illness or how drunk or high they are or how clearly their psychological wounds are still weeping. Taking that moment to just be there, for just a moment, might be enough to kickstart them to a better place.

Seriously.

Do not underestimate the power of sincerely listening when you ask “How are you?” It could change a life.

talk to me

When’s the last time you talked with someone? Really talked, I mean. Exchanged thoughts, shared ideas. Discovered common ground. Danced around areas of disagreement.

When’s the last time you listened? Really listened, I mean. Not formulated a response while their lips made words, waiting for your turn to jump in and make your own words because that’s what you felt like you should do. And that if you didn’t say something, anything, you wouldn’t be “interesting.”

In other words, when’s the last time you had a real conversation?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When you’re a writer whose days are spent at a keyboard — peppered occasional with brief forays into the Wonderful World of Spoken Words because of business meetings or conference calls or whatnot — these are the kinds of thoughts that ramble through your head. And I’ve come to the realization that to stumble into a real, honest to goodness conversation is worth its weight in gold.

Because there’s something inherently human about that connection. Something deeply necessary for our spirit and our soul. Sharing yourself, putting your ideas, thoughts, beliefs into words and finding common ground with someone else can be the soothing balm that eases the choppy waters of a rough day.

A simple conversation is priceless.

Conversation is where friends are made, loves are discovered, inspiration is found and balance is restored. Conversation is where you reconnect to those lost parts of yourself. Conversation is one of the rare times in life where you need not walk alone.

To have a discussion — which is different than talking — is opening the door to learning. Listening — which is different than hearing — is where you walk through that door and settle into a room of new possibility.

And that’s one thing I suspect people still don’t get.

You learn more by listening than you do by talking. You learn more by paying attention to not only what’s said and how it’s said — body language, inflection, pauses and hesitation — but also in what isn’t being said.

And that’s where the real truth lies. In the words not used. In the words not spoken. In the words they don’t yet have the courage or self-awareness to say.

But you lose these discoveries if you’re too busy talking. And, generally, we all tend to talk too much. So stop. Just stop it. Really. It’s unnecessary.

Because while your mouth’s a’movin’, you’re missing the important stuff. The courage being found and the truths being shared. The brave breakthroughs and the baring of the wounded soul. While your mouth’s a’movin’, you’re missing the chance to stop and listen and, with your quiet kindness and patient grace, maybe change a life.

Think about it.

Sometimes all that’s needed is your silence and your sincerity. And sometimes, just sometimes, when you’re quiet and listening, you truly hear what’s being said — and not being said.

And that’s where the real conversation lies. That’s where the connection needs to be made.

So, the next time you find yourself striking gold with a real, honest to goodness conversation, stop, listen, watch, hear with your heart and your soul and have the courage, with your silence, to say “Talk to me.”

You’ll be a better person because of it.

the importance of people

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t have a lot of people in my life. We writers — heads low, fingers poised over the keyboard, eyes watching (if we’re lucky) all those words skitter across the screen — are usually a quiet bunch. More often than not, our days are spent in silence creating other worlds because that’s what our work demands. Friends, conversation, interaction? For me, it’s often done via email and text. And that’s just how it is.

Again, it’s the nature of the work we do.

So what happens when that work fails you? When the words don’t come? When that silent world you so rely on retreats into shadow?

What happens when you have to look up from your keyboard?

Now, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit this because I have an article published about how to handle this and, because of that, am supposed to be some sort of “expert.” (I’m not) But there I was, the words gone, the sentences resisting, the stories refusing to leave the safety of being single sentence concepts. My doubts about my talent and future and career growing with each passing minute, hour, day, week…month. And having tried every dang trick in the book (see link above) to snap the cycle, I was still at a loss.

So I did something I never do: I reached out.

Yeah, I reached out. To my publisher. To my teeny-tiny circle of real life friends (I can count them on one hand). My entertainment attorney. Even to other writers I know only via social media.

I reached out and said “help”

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Heck, people do it all the time. But I’m not “people” and that’s something I rarely, if ever, do. Like most in my business, I’m self-sustaining and used to pulling myself up by my own boot straps. To show doubt is to show weakness. And in those choppy Hollywood waters, that’s akin to planting your butt in the middle of the buffet table next to the carving knife.

So to do this took chutzpah, it took courage, it took a willingness to admit that, Hey, I’m at a loss and I’m not sure I have the strength to do what I need to do. Doing this took a small, but necessary, admittance of defeat.

And it made all the difference.

How so? Because I reached out and others reached back. They reached back! I know, right? They — well, most of them, anyway — met me in the middle. Showed me I wasn’t alone. Showed me I was cared about and, in some way, mattered. That my work, my words, still mattered.

Point is, when everything else fails, when all those tips and tricks come up short and you’re still left stranded on Writer’s Block Island (also known as Hell Adjacent), reach out.

Just reach out. The answer may be there. Or maybe not. But at least you’ll be reminded that you’re not alone, that people care and, heck, sometimes that small touch of humanity is all you need.

Writing alone doesn’t mean you have to BE alone.

So, reach out.