Posted in Film, Writing

How an Unusual Structure Can Benefit Your Novel

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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 — The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond the Pines is a superb achievement, a film that plays out like a great thought-provoking novel. Derek Cianfrance’s first feature Blue Valentine was one of my favorite films of 2010, and I had high expectations for his follow-up. I had a feeling walking in this film was going to be good, but I didn’t prepare for how good.

This is one of those two-and-a-half-hour movies I could have easily watched another hour of. There’s a startling immediacy to Cianfrance’s work, from the look of his films, to the raw performances, to stories that go to very dark places. His films aren’t for everyone, but I found Blue Valentine, and now The Place Beyond the Pines, two of the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

In essence you get three mesmerizing short films in The Place Beyond the Pines for the price of one. One story involves Gosling — who continues, movie after movie, to pick great material and deliver exceptional performances — as a motorcycle stunt rider who discovers a fling he had resulted in a one-year-old child, and he starts robbing banks in order to contribute to the baby’s future.

Another story involves a cop (Bradley Cooper) who gets caught up in corruption at work and has to decide whether to rat on his fellow policemen or look the other way.

The last story involves a turbulent friendship between two teenagers who get in deep trouble when they find out just who each other is, and what their backgrounds mean to their uncertain futures. It’s a weird comparison, but the film reminded me of Psycho, in the way the narrative is structured. Essentially you think the film is about one thing, and then in ten seconds time, you realize it’s about something else. This happens twice in the film, even though in the end all the stories connect in a way that satisfies way more than any traditional narrative could have provided.

The Place Beyond the Pines may have reminded me of Psycho in its structure, but in its themes it brought to mind movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. It’s an epic that’s not on the level of those two masterpieces, but in my mind is just one notch lower. As much as I love Blue Valentine, it’s a film very limited in scope, as it examines the relationship between two people in two very different periods of their lives.

The Place Beyond the Pines has a much broader canvas, dealing with multiple important characters over three stories, in different time periods. Yet Cianfrance still manages to keep this sprawling narrative tight and intimate at all times, and continues, even when a major character is long gone, to flash back to the beginning, to where the epic journey began. Some may be disappointed as to the fate of a major character, some may cry “how convenient” in the third act. But these surprising developments make for some of the most riveting drama I’ve seen up on the screen in many months. I was enthralled in every scene of this film.

In two films Cianfrance has been blessed with impressive casts, and everyone raises their game in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling is as dynamic as ever; if he could work with Cianfrance forever and ever, the world of cinema would be a better place.

And there’s Bradley Cooper, an actor I never imagined I would find in two of my favorite recent films. As great as he was in the first Hangover movie, he came into his own in Silver Linings Playbook, and he delivers just as impressive a performance here, as a cop who many call a hero but has so much guilt on his conscience that he’s having trouble surviving. When it looks like things are going downhill, and fast, for him, Cooper doesn’t hesitate in showing his character’s supreme desperation.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve always been obsessed with unusual structures in novels and film. Think of Pulp Fiction, think of Memento. The Place Beyond the Pines also does some interesting things with its structure, and if you’re willing to follow a great storyteller who knows what’s he doing, films like these can be exhilarating experiences. I feel the same way about books that don’t commit to the obvious structure. I’ve been paying more attention to POV the last few years, and I’m always startled with an author switches from first person to third person throughout the book, or allows for a minor character to suddenly get a POV chapter halfway through. Structure is so important to a compelling story, and sometimes you have to go against the obvious to produce something spectacular.

Exercise!

Pitch me a novel project that would have some kind of unusual structure. What would the story be about? Who would be your protagonist? Would there be more than one protagonist, like in The Place Beyond the Pines?

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