Posted in Film, Writing

How to Blend Tension and Violence in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most consistent filmmakers in the business, with only one disappointment on his resume (Death Proof), and Django Unchained added another hit to his eclectic canon of masterworks. I still remember walking over to my friend’s house in 1994, when I was ten, and hearing his parents talking about some filthy, abhorrent low-budget movie they just saw and hated. I asked the title. “Pulp Fiction,” they said. Of course I had to see the movie as soon as possible, and I remember when I finally sneaked a VHS rental of it the following year, I fell madly in love.

I’ve felt that way about Quentin ever since. He still writes all of his own material, and considering that his films are usually about three years apart, each new one is an event. Now that he’s said he’s considering retiring from motion picture directing after his tenth film, we have to treasure everything new he has to put out for us. Django Unchained is a blast, complete with everything we come to expect from a Tarantino flick: memorable dialogue, gruesome violence galore, great performances, and a finale that will make you want to jump up and cheer. The final hour of Django Unchained is some of the best material of any movie of 2012. Basically everything from Samuel L. Jackson’s reveal, on. The suspense in the final big dialogue scene, followed by not one but three carefully constructed shoot-outs, is just pure Tarantino. This is the part of the movie, aside from one glaring flaw toward the end, that I loved. The first half of the movie, however, I had some issues with.

I seem to be in the minority on this, but while I love the third acts, I find the first halves of both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained lacking in energy. It’s not that I think they’re boring. I’m never bored. His 1997 film Jackie Brown is almost ALL talk for two-and-a-half hours and I find that film fascinating. I just think many of the scenes in these two films go on too long, making for films that nearly hit the three-hour mark, that would’ve been glorious at about two hours.

Django Unchained has two great scenes early on, its first one involving the introduction of Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz, in a tremendous performance that can stand alongside his performance in Basterds), and the second involving the shooting of a town sheriff. But much of the ensuing journey toward Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the long-lost bride of the title character Django (a reserved, effective Jamie Foxx) takes a long, long time, longer than usual, with constant stops and starts that I felt didn’t need to be there. The long stretch of material with Don Johnson and a misplaced Jonah Hill felt too goofy and unnecessary, for example.

And I felt a need for more urgency. Django and Dr. Schultz gun down the three Brittle Brothers within the first forty-five minutes of the movie, and Dr. Schultz stays with Django just because he’s German and wants to see him find his German bride. If one of the Brittle brothers had survived and was found hiding out in the final mansion, that to me would’ve given more motivation for Dr. Schultz to stay so close to Django.

I also didn’t like that the duo spend a lot of time at the mansion of Calvin Candie (a splendidly wicked Leonardo DiCaprio), only to then travel to another mansion, to essentially just have that same scene from before continue on. Again, just lots of stops and starts. I felt like a lot of this film could’ve been condensed. But I’ll take a sprawling, flawed Tarantino flick over most other movies any day! I still really, really liked this movie. I just felt the pacing could’ve been a little faster, and more energy could’ve been added to some of the first 90 minutes.

Despite my reservations up top, I did enjoy this movie a lot. And I think with an additional viewing or two, I might even be able to admire some of the slower patches in the movie. The third act is SO GREAT that I want to scream my love for Django Unchained to the world, but I have enough reservations about the movie that I can’t bellow from the mountaintops yet. But when the movie works, it works.

My favorite two performances in the movie are by Leonardo DiCaprio, and an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson. DiCaprio has never played this evil before, and he has great fun with the role. Jackson hasn’t had a role this rich and complex since Unbreakable. The last hour of the film is worth a ticket price alone, hell two ticket prices, with only Quentin Tarantino himself marring it briefly toward the end with a laughable cameo that takes you right out of the movie. Tarantino, I love you, but you should stay behind the scenes (unless Robert Rodriguez is directing you).

But despite my reservations, Django Unchained is a must-see. I’m so overly critical of Tarantino’s movies of late, and I guess part of the reason is that, to me, Kill Bill (Volumes 1 & 2 taken as one giant movie) is his unrivaled masterpiece, a movie of so much creativity and action and heart and brilliance that it’s difficult to compare anything else he makes to it. Django Unchained is no Kill Bill, but it’s still a great film worth checking out!

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve been writing suspense stories exclusively for the last three years, and what I love to do in many of my stories is blend moments of excruciating tension with shocking and sudden bursts of violence. Quentin Tarantino is obviously the master of this in his many films, often to the point where any quiet moment in a Tarantino movie fills you with dread. When a dialogue scene has gone on for more than five minutes, watch out — something terrible is probably going to happen! My new YA thriller works in a similar way in that a long stretch of tension in the middle of the novel paves the way for a shocking finale filled with much action and violence. To make tension and violence work together is to have the necessary amount of both. Too much tension and little payoff at the end, whether it’s violence or something else, may leave the reader frustrated. Too little tension and non-stop violence will leave the reader exhausted, or bored. Find the right balance between the two and your reader will go on a thrill ride like no other!

Exercise!

Think back on a story or novel you’ve written that had both moments of tension and moments of violence. How did you blend the two? Were you successful?

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