WHAT THE SANDRA BULLOCK FILM “THE UNFORGIVABLE” CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT CHARACTER WRITING
Or The Art Of Giving Your Audience A Good Cry This New Year
My wife is a tough audience.
That makes her a very good judge of whether a show on Netflix is worth your time. When I first heard that Sandra Bullock had a new film, The Unforgivable, out on Netflix, I hesitated to watch it. The title alone did not promise a happy time. Then I read the premise. It was as bleak as dull grey clouds brooding over a parched desert. Not exactly a tonic that would cheer you up after a hard day at work.
This was the premise. Sandra Bullock played an ex-convict who was looking for her sister, with whom she had lost contact while she was in prison. She had served 20 years for killing a sheriff and the film charted the struggle she faced as she tried to integrate herself back into society while at the same time, look for her sister, hoping for a reconciliation. After my wife said that it was “interesting and not bad”, which when translated meant “worth watching”, I decided to give it a go.
The premise and the film were indeed bleak. But it was engrossing. Like any good story, regardless of genre, I was swept away into dizzying highs and lows of an emotional journey. Sandra Bullock’s performance was phenomenal. I’m convinced the woman can act in any genre, from comedy, thriller, action, and now straight up drama. I was moved by the end of the film. I was wiping away manly tears that trickled from my eyes. It was not just because of Sandra Bullock’s performance but also how the writer had crafted the character, and it is this aspect which I would like to talk about.
The Elusive Good Story Idea
When I was a lecturer, I would hear many story ideas pitched by students. Ninety nine percent of those ideas did not inspire. That is not surprising. Good ideas are not something you can pull out as easily as a hanky out of your pocket. And gauging the effectiveness of an idea can be subjective. An idea that makes you sit up and want to know more may be a yawn to someone else. There are however certain ideas, that upon hearing them, a series of bulbs will light up in your head. It immediately triggers the urge in you to want to know what happens next. Which begs the question. Are there qualities or traits or attributes a story idea should have that would make it attractive to an audience? That would warrant a deeper look? In 2014, the Heath Brothers wrote a book titled Made To Stick that attempted to answer those questions. I was so impressed I incorporated several of its lessons into my own class on Project Pitching.
In the book, the Heath brothers talked about ways to give your ideas a chance of landing with an audience. A more structured method of determining if an idea is good, which is better than a frenzied hurling of ideas on a wall and seeing what sticks. One way is to tell stories that come in the form of three kinds of plots. The Challenge, Connection, and Creative plot. Depending on the kind of response you wish to elicit from your audience, you would be wise to frame the events in your story according to the relevant plot. Generally, if you wish to get someone’s eyes misty over a story, the strategy would be to go for a Connection plot.
Which is what exactly?
The Plot That Connects You And I
In a nutshell, a Connection Plot is one where the main character in the story sacrifices something important for someone else. It can be a prized heirloom. Your last morsel of bread. Anything is possible, as long as what you give up, is equivalent to “death” itself.
And what is more important than the sacrifice of one’s own life?
One of the most heart wrenching films I’ve ever seen was Passion of The Christ, a 2004 film directed by Mel Gibson. It was two hours and seven minutes of watching the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life as he was judged, whipped, and made to drag a large wooden cross all the way along Val Dolorosa to Calvary Hill. The way Gibson filmed the whipping, you could hear each stroke of the whip as it whistled through the air. I remembered flinching at the tearing sound of flesh being ripped and gouged as the whip flayed the flesh of Jesus. And that was all before the main event — The Crucifixion. The most agonizing torture ever devised by Man. All the more heartbreaking as we are all aware of the significance of why he went through this torture, this sacrifice.
As the Good Book said, HE died so we may live.
The Plight Of the Under Dog
The plight of the underdog is universally understood. We have all at some point in our lives experienced moments of injustice. Where overwhelming forces rear up and array themselves against us, beating us down, trampling our faces into the dirt, and we are powerless to resist.
This is why we identify with those who are afflicted with undeserved suffering.
In The Unforgivable, the character played by Sandra Bullock, went through 20 years of undeserved suffering. I will not reveal any spoilers. But the revelation of the final one third of the movie, truly increased your connection to the character. What she went through, what she gave up, what she suffered for the sake of her sister, will break your heart.
The Point of Watching Depressing Films
I remember watching an old Nicholas Cage movie, Leaving Las Vegas, and I thought it must have been one of the most depressing films I have ever seen. The character in the film said, I am going to Las Vegas and I will drink myself to death and that was exactly what he did. At certain points, you’d be hoping that okay, this time, he met someone, surely, he would be on the road to recovery but nope. However you may feel about Nicholas Cage’s character, you’ve to admire the man’s gumption. He stuck to his guns. He stayed true to his goal. He went back to the bottle and he drank himself to death. Watching the film was like watching in slow motion, the real time disintegration and dissolution of a human being spiraling down to a drunken death. I remembered feeling a great deal of pity and sadness, while at the same time gratitude that I was spared such an affliction of mental stress. Once in a while, watching a depressing film does leave one with a better appreciation of the good moments in one’s life, no matter how small you think they be. And The Unforgivable did that for me.
A Writer’s Takeaway
As writers, when we design our characters, and chart the struggle of our hero, we must be conscious of making sure what he or she would die for. And then make that abundantly clear to our audience. Show how much your hero is willing to give up for the sake of someone else. And the manly tears would fall like gentle rain.
Go watch The Unforgivable.
It is worth your time.
Trust my wife.