Spoiler Alert: How to Ruin Movies for Your Husband

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Find the ingredients that make your story unique

I know, I know, it’s true. I’m a terrible wife. I drop key details and even endings of films to my husband like a captured spy shot with truth serum. He hates it and gets so mad at me. Still, the plot lines pour out.

But let me tell you why I spoil cinematic secrets for my husband. He’s also a writer. A fiction writer who should know by now there’s only about seven stories in circulation in the whole wide world. Not much to be surprised by.

Plot lines aren’t a new thing in human history. People plotted out stories on cave walls. Death and taxes, right? I know there were no accountants back then. But that’s what they tell us we can depend on in the modern age. In other words, there are only so many experiences that can happen to us humans here on Earth. Even rocketing us to Mars doesn’t make much of a difference. We act out the same cycle of existence in sci-fi, too.

Plot lines aren’t why people get invested in stories. People get emotionally involved with how a story is told.

As someone who loves editing writing, I don’t ruin movies to be an asshole. I ruin them because plot lines aren’t why people get invested in stories. People get emotionally involved with how a story is told. Seriously.

How many movies are there about WWII? We all know how that ended, don’t we? Yet, the stories of brotherhood, valor, and unfulfilled promises during that war keep cropping up. It’s never a history lesson. Remember Life is Beautiful? It won best foreign film in 1999 not because the audience was enraptured with how the war would end, but because it was told through a fresh lens. 

After being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s last year, my anxiety shot up whenever I’d watch a horror movie. I could no longer view violent images. I had to protect my headspace. So, I started reading the plot lines of films before I’d go see them. That way if something was too much for me, I’d be prepared. I can assure you this didn’t take anything away from my viewing experience.

I’m telling you this, not so you’ll ruin movies for your significant other. Although if you haven’t had a good argument in a while, this might get y’all going. I’m telling you because so many writers believe if someone else has previously written about their subject, they shouldn’t write about it. Christ on a cracker— that’s crap! (And so is that saying, I’ve never said that in my life, but it was fun to interject.) Your perspective is far more valuable than how a story ends. It drives me batty when I hear people groan “oh, another woman’s pregnancy story!” WHAT?! Have you seen the movies out there about pregnancy?

She’s Having a Baby.

9 Months.

Knocked Up.

What do all these movie endings have in common?

Not birth! Nope. Men’s transformative feelings around becoming a father!

Remember Elizabeth McGovern before Downton Abbey? Barely. She hardly had any lines in that 1980s Kevin Bacon flick. And she was the one going into labor! But I know exactly how Bacon’s character and Hugh Grant’s character AND Seth Rogan’s character feel about their shifting responsibilities in preparation for parenthood. They are all the same. But we watch them, anyway.  

Not until Tully starring Charlize Theron did we get some insight into the real postpartum experience. In this film, we finally see a female lead playing a multi-faceted mother who is wrecked by breastfeeding and sleep deprivation. Can you believe this version of a pregnancy story is rare? Only recently has Hollywood started showing motherhood from the perspective of women. Surprise!

The surprise ending, that big reveal in a story is YOU!

Even stories that have the same plot lines can have surprise endings. How? Because the surprise ending, that big reveal in a story is YOU! Your perspective. Your voice.

You must position your story in a way that is unique and truthful. Information only you can provide. Stop worrying if the story’s been done before. Trust me, it has. Your stories aren’t new. But you are! You cute little spring chick. What we need more of are not new narratives, but narratives told through an authentic lens. Your voice as a guide to transform the way we see the world.

Lucky for you, there are endless combinations of literary devices and ways to position a story, so you can conceive an original angle.

Here are some literary concepts you can play with to tell a story through your unique perspective:

Point of View: The perspective of the narrator in relation to the story

  • First person POV: The narrator speaks in “I” statements. Most common in memoir writing. Ex: I was walking down the school’s hallway when I decided to change my whole life.

  • Second person POV: An unusual way of telling a story, but it can be done. The narrator uses “you” statements and tells the story to someone else. Used for giving directions or in quirky styles of writing. Ex: To make a sandwich, you’ll need these 5 ingredients.

  • Third person POV, Limited: The narrator uses “he,” “she,” or “it” and follows only one character throughout the story. Mostly used in fiction. Ex: When she arrived at the hospital to be induced, she didn’t know what to expect from the nurse on duty or where the hallway would lead her.

  • Third person POV, Omniscient: The narrator uses “he,” “she,” or “it,” but knows everything within the story. The God’s Eye View. Mostly used in fiction. Ex: When she arrived at the hospital, she stood at the front desk and waited. The nurse on duty scarfed down her sandwich out of sight from the patients. 

  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator may use any of the POVs, but the reader soon learns the narrator can’t be trusted. Think Girl on a Train. The novel has multiple POVs, but the movie is told from one perspective— a perspective we rely on. As the story unfolds, we’re given additional information that makes the narrator less and less credible. This information begins to erode our trust in the narrator.

Verb Tense: directs us to when the events of a story are happening

  • Past tense: Recalling events that happened before the present. Ex: When I was wheeled into the operating room, I cried tears of joy and terror.

  • Present tense: Experiencing events in real time. Ex: I’m lying face up. The anesthesiologist explains what he’s about to give me as someone straps my hands to boards on either side of me.

  • Future tense: Projecting forward in time. Ex: When I get to the hospital, my doctor will be waiting on me, my birth will be painless and beautiful. Just wait. 

Tone: The narrator’s attitude about the story. Think about the tone of your voice and how it changes to convey anger, happiness, or concern. Your written word choices, punctuation, and sentence structure can reveal tone on the page, too.

Mood: Words, phrases, or descriptions that evoke feelings in a reader. What’s the most famous mood in storytelling? It’s a huge cliché now and we should stay away from it, but it’s great to use as an example.

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

Clearly, this opening line lets us know this story is not going to be about unicorns. We get not only the setting, but also an unsettled mood. Or we used to. Now it sounds like the beginning of a spoof on SNL. So, the phrase has changed from setting up a mood of unease, to setting up a mood that is a humorous parody.

* Tone and mood often get mixed together, but they aren’t the same. Tone is what’s being projected FROM THE WRITER. Mood is a feeling that is stirred WITHIN THE READER.

Writing Style: Different writers can use similar styles. We aren’t talking about a personal style like we find in fashion. Think patterns. Is there some mechanical repetition within in a writer’s words that convey a recognizable arrangement?

Here are two men who have vastly different styles of writing. Check out the public rivalry between elaborate and flowery Faulkner vs. straightforward Hemingway in their own words:

He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used
— FAULKNER ON HEMINGWAY
Does he really think big emotions come from big words?
— HEMINGWAY ON FAULKNER

Despite their differences in style, the two men had a lot in common. They were white men who dominated the literary landscape of the first half of the 20th century. And despite their public pecking, the two respected each other, driving Faulkner to admit this about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: “His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries.”

Similar perspectives, different styles.

Writer’s Voice: The way a writer puts together various literary elements to let their personality come through the page. An author with a strong writer’s voice will be instantly recognizable and distinct from other writers.

Hemingway’s not the first or last person to write in short, direct sentences. This is a writing style that can be copied. But layer over that style a chest-pounding military bravado with a lone wolf, wild man’s swagger to narrate foreign wars, big game hunting, and deep sea fishing and you’ve now got a solidified Hemingway voice as unique as a fingerprint.

But enough about dead men.

Here’s an exercise you should try now:

Look at some of your writing and try to break it out into separate components. It doesn’t have to fit into these boxes perfectly. This isn’t baking. But having a better understanding of your author’s perspective can help you determine what you are conveying to your readers.

Or you can challenge yourself to combine literary elements to write in a new way.

Here’s my example:

POV:  1st person POV (memoirs), 1st & 2nd POV (blog posts)

Verb tense: present tense

Sentence structure: mid-length to longer sentences (hey, I’m Southern), but with short, jabby sentences or fragments thrown in to break up a sea of longer paragraphs.

Other literary devices: story within a story, flashbacks, internal dialogue, and smartass asides

Tone: honest, but humorous

Mood: eliciting a feeling of in-your-face understanding from readers without overwhelming them.

Voice: provocative, unconventional

Style: narrative style that starts with action, then weaves together contrasting elements that eventually provoke an ah-ha of understanding.

What it means

I write my memoirs in first person, present tense. My blog posts are a mix of 1st & 2nd tense, because those require writing instructions. I’ve always been a bit longwinded, but I’ve learned to lop off prepositional phrases. Still, my longer sentences & paragraphs are broken up with short bits that poke readers with a point. I stitch together story within a story, flashbacks, internal dialogue, and snarky asides as if they all weigh on me in real time. It keeps my writing close to the bone, but my humorous tone prevents me from overwhelming my readers. And despite being a chatty Southerner, I prefer action and like to start in the middle of it, backtracking only to get in the essential exposition. These odd contrasts marinate together to give me my writer’s voice.

But don’t take my word for it. I once had a friend at a writing retreat tell me that my fashion sense was very much like my writer’s voice. She noted how I took random things—pieces that didn’t seem to go together—and combined them to create something that felt fresh.

Now It’s Your Turn:

Ask yourself some questions about how your words come through the page. While there’s writing that works and writing that doesn’t work, your writing voice will eventually become as unique as your fingerprint, too.

Ask yourself, do I want to be up-close and personal with my subject? If so, you may want to consider a first person POV or using the present tense. If you need some distance, write in the past tense and go for one of the third person POVs. Will you add in humor to mellow out a tough topic? Or do you want to showcase it warts and all? How do you structure your sentences? Flowery or straightforward. Do you use any other literary devices?

Ask a friend or writing colleague what they notice about your writing style and voice.

Just like with cooking, there are endless ingredients to help you define your writer’s voice. How you approach each component will start to shape your storytelling.

But be warned… knowing too much about the storytelling process could lead to anticipating endings with great accuracy. What movies can you spoil for your significant other as you learn to dissect a story’s literary voice?