Last night my husband and I saw “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s a mesmerizing film that anyone who appreciates a good story should see. It’s the only movie I’ve been to where almost no one got up to use the restroom during the film. When the movie ended, there seemed to be a huge exhale from the audience, as if we were all holding our breaths (I think we were). To say that Bullock is outstanding in the film would be a gross understatement. Don’t bother with Academy judges; just give her the Oscar now.
My biggest takeaway from the film wasn’t immense amount of respect for Bullock’s talent (I already have that) or awe at the stunning cinematography, but how well the story came together. As a historical fiction writer, I’m forced to work within the constraints of the time. I can’t have folks riding around in cars when they weren’t invented for another 70 or so years. Using the phone? Totally not going to happen. Yet in this movie, the screenwriters, director Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonás, deftly carry Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, from one hold-your-breath moment to the next.
That’s what stuns me about this story, and in particular, the writers.
They put together a series of events that created not only an incredibly engaging story, but a realistic one. There are a few scientific implausibilities, but on the whole, the film is technically sound. Each scene ramps up the tension. Each act takes you closer and closer to the precipice of the climax, and I found myself holding my breath and squeezing my husband’s hand from the uncertainty and anxiety.
How do good storytellers do that? How do they create such an engaging story? How do the ideas keep coming? What goes through their mind when they get so far, then realize something won’t work and they must back up and start over? How do they keep it real?
I also wonder at the mental and emotional strength required by writers to let good characters go. In the film, not everyone makes it through to the end. Writing the death of a beloved character is difficult, I think. Especially when you’re grown with them, learned about them, and love them. To write them off the page is almost like losing a friend. But it’s necessary sometimes to main the integrity of the story.
These things are what I fear most in my writing…that my story will be so contrived, so improbable, or — even worse — a series of such random events, that readers will throw the book against the wall, saying, “There’s no way that could happen” or “Too coincidental.” I’m also afraid I won’t be brave enough to let beloved characters go. Let’s not even mention writing characters with the depth and emotion that exuded from Bullock’s Dr. Stone.
By far, the most eye-opening realization that came from this movie for me is what a novice I am at storytelling. My current WIP seems so trite, so formulaic, so…“been there, done that.” “Gravity” is the kind of storytelling I dream of achieving. However, I must have faith in myself and my ability to bring good characters and plot to the page. If I lose that, then I will never succeed. In “Gravity,” Dr. Stone found the will to succeed, and so must I.