As far as movies go, How I Live Now isn't bad. It's not the best movie I've seen this year; the dialogue is sometimes weak and the romance is contrived and too simple to drive the character through the challenges she faces, but—it does some interesting things that one rarely sees in a Hollywood production. (It's a British production, in fact.)
It begins as a basic story about an antisocial American girl visiting the UK against her will. She falls in love with a nice British boy against the nice country backdrop. Then, out of nowhere, bullets are flying, the bomb is dropped, explosions, radiation, contaminated water, forced labor, digging through corpse-piles to find family members, rape, murder, etc.
So, how does that work?
The change isn't exactly out of nowhere. The director and writer used effective foreshadow in the form of military presence in the airport, increased security screenings, bombing news in the background, conversations, etc. This all added a subtle layer of tension to the film that otherwise would have led to a jarring and unpalatable change in pace, conflict, genre, and style.
It's an unconventional and risky technique. Some won't like it, but I found it refreshing, despite the unnerving and unexpected bursts of violence and intense imagery. I like that it skipped the usual CGI-laden scenes of apocalyptic destruction and told the story on the ground, from a personal perspective.
In storytelling, there are often a multitude of changes that can turn a reader off. Beloved characters die, for example. Settings change without warning. Tone might change, as well as theme or pace. Foreshadowing is one technique a write can use to prepare the reader for that turn, and even create tension as they wait to see something they dread unfold.
In the case of How I Live Now, it made one critical difference—without that foreshadowing, I wouldn't have made it to the bomb. Even as it is, I was about to change to something else, but I kept watching a little longer because of those little hints at something awful just up the road.
Parenthetically, it is fair to say that perhaps it wasn't the best approach. The writer could easily have chosen to begin later in the story, since the romance was poorly contrived anyway. The tidbits about the main character's rules and compulsive nature could have been covered in-story or through unfolded backstory, as could the romance element.
I watch stories, not movies (and that, rarely); nevertheless, I looked forward to American Hustle not for it's story but because of actors and a director I respect, plus it has over 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is usually a promising factor.
And while the movie was technically well done all around, I could not enjoy it for a basic story-level reason: a general lack of characters to care about.
Other than Jeremy Renner's character, there are no heroes in the movie—I don't mean a classic hero, but someone to care for, someone trying to do something good or respectable. I noted a few surface-level good intention, always masking some deeper narcissism or corruption.
It's interesting to note how even an unlikable character like Sherlock can draw us in so long as we believe they have nobility and loyalty to their friends. Contrast that with Walter White of Breaking Bad—an overall likable character for several seasons who ultimately loses the viewers respect when he finally admits he did it all for the power, not for his family as he had claimed all along.
(Now, I will note a little redemption when a few of the characters changed their ways in the end, but the movie had built up so much apathy in me, that the ending was dulled by that point. The movie did try to show them progressing towards this end, but it failed in a too-little sense.)
So a technically brilliant and well acted movie with otherwise strong story elements and top notch story construction can leave a viewer apathetic simply because there was no one to care for? Absolutely.
Having taken some time off from the blog to focus on writing during an unfortunate period of unemployment, I will be continuing with regular updates soon; however, expect some turbulence while I adjust to a new job.
And during this unemployment, one thing has stood out: it's amazing how much time can get wasted. I began with the intent to write tons. What did I accomplish with nearly a month off? One damn good short story and the planning work on a novella. Not too bad, but I could have done better.
The problems? First, I let a contest distract me. I wanted to win, but the subject just didn't entice me. I had an idea, but it just wasn't solid. I spent a week futzing with the thing and finally realized it just wasn't going to happen. I just couldn't visualize it. Something is missing.
(There is still a couple weeks left; who knows if I'll find the missing ingredient or not.)
Next, common distractions. Little things. Some errands and dental work, but mostly just time-wasters.
The good? The short story worked well and helped restore some confidence. Other conversations during this time contributed to my confidence too.
The lesson overall is that writing takes shit-loads of discipline. It takes ideas, which need a quiet place to develop. It takes willpower to open up the editor and get to work, all while letting the next idea take seed in the mind.
Sadly, I tend to put writing last. It should be first.
Here's to hoping the lessons have been learned.
At this time, the novel is in a marinating stage while I work on the novella I have planned. I think I've found the critical obstacles that were blocking up the scenes in that work, so I'm hopeful it will see more progress when I return to it.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.