It’s no great secret that being a writer — well, being an artist at all, but specifically being somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about storytelling — warps the way you see the world a bit. In fact, part of my general unease of late centers on the fact that the real world functions so very decidedly unlike a story.
Still, it’s hard to help how you think, and while I’m hairline-deep in the editing process trying to make my drivel readable and coherent (a task that seems more in need of a blowtorch than a laptop most days), I can’t help seeing story everywhere I look. They say that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; but what does that mean when every problem you see looks like it could be solved with a bit of narrative restructuring?
Anyway: my wife and I are sitting down last night watching Wonder, one of those feel-good movies designed to play on your heartstrings at the expense of a satisfying narrative. (See also: Parenthood, This is Us, or any other contemporary drama starring a big cast with a troubled family and scored with the sounds of a sweet, sweet soulful acoustic guitar. My wife will give me heck for not liking the movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just don’t feel satisfied by it. Emotions are not my thing since I’m basically a robot in a skin-suit. But it was fine. HONEY IT WAS FINE.) And, as we’re watching, in my head I’m silently going down the list.
Call to action: check.
Meeting the mentor: check.
Crossing the threshold: check.
(What? This is how I watch movies now.)
And we get to the final third of the movie, and — no big spoiler here — the family dog gets sick, gets taken to the vet, and dies. (Okay, spoiler-for-everything alert — if the family pet is shown to be exceptionally adorable or loyal in the first act, it will die by the third act. Call it Chekhov’s Canine.) I jump up from the couch, pointing like Sherlock Holmes discovering the crime-solving clue, and shout “THE WHIFF OF DEATH!”
See, I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and I know that there comes a moment toward the second half of the story where somebody or something close to the hero dies, reminding the hero of their mortality and spurring them to make the change necessary for the resolution of the central conflict. Snyder calls this the “whiff of death,” and for whatever reason, I forgot about it, or wasn’t expecting to see it in this movie, or maybe it’s vacation so we were a couple of adult beverages in and I got a little enthusiastic. Anyway, the moment dropped like a a blue whale falling through the stratosphere and I HAD TO POINT IT OUT TO SOMEBODY.
My wife is unimpressed. She’s puzzled, and a little affronted, since she’s in her feelings watching the dad come home, sad-faced and apologetic, to deliver the bad news to the kids. It’s kind of a bolt-from-the-blue moment in the story. The dog isn’t really relevant to the narrative at all. But I saw it — and SEE it — for what it is: a cattle prod up the posterior of the protagonist to get him hustling into the final third of the movie. I try explaining this to her with lots of full-bodied gesticulation and noises about character development and guttural grunting. “THE WHIFF OF DEATH,” I exclaim again, both hands flung out toward the TV in a can’t-you-see-it gesture.
“Yeah,” she says. “The dog died. It’s sad.”
Which is right, too, I guess.
I have no idea how the movie ended; writing was so much on my brain by that point that I had to stop watching in favor of jotting down several book-saving ideas that I had failed to write down earlier in the day because I am an idiot.
Just kidding: (spoiler alert!) everything works out okay for the kid in the end, and everybody in the kid’s orbit learns some important lessons about life. See? It’s uplifting, and not at all like real life!
Now to figure out what we’re going to “watch” tonight.