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Thursday, December 17, 2009

October Sky and Good Writing, Part I

I'd never heard of the movie October Sky before last year, but now I've used it in my classes two years in a row. It's a wonderful story about fathers and sons, about striving to be yourself and not who others want to define you as, about overcoming long odds, and math. :)

It hasn't yet ceased to amaze me how I'll start the movie, turn the lights down, and without me having to do much of anything, conversation and off task behavior will just die of its own accord, as the kids get totally hooked by this story. The kids are thrilled at the high points and concerned at the low ones. A quiet moment will come along, and you could hear a pin drop. Often there's applause when the movie gets to the end. This is a powerful story, and one the kids eat right up.

When you show the same movie class after class, you get a chance to move past the narrative, and see what's going on behind the magic. I've heard some folks recommend typing out or copying down published stories that you find effective so that you can get beyond the spell and see how the author accomplished it. I haven't yet tried that myself--spare time is just too hard to come by these days. :) But I can totally see how that could be good advice, because, among other things, I felt a similar effect as I saw this film repeatedly. Either way, the point is to get to where you're not pulled into the thrall, so you can see what's going on. (It's not the same exactly, but I didn't just watch the movie repeatedly; when you show a movie to kids in 50 minute increments, you do more than just watch the screen.)

I had a couple of observations I thought I could take away from watching this today, one of which I'll post now, and the other one I'll save.

A lot of what I've read on story structure talks about having disasters continually separate the protagonist from his or her goal, and either forcing the protagonist to regroup, or forcing the protagonist to revise the goal. At the end, when all seems the most hopeless, the protagonist finally breaks through. It gets to seeming like the protagonist can never have a moment of success of enjoyment along the way, and that hardly seems to represent all the fiction out there.

As I watched October Sky, it occurred to me that the pattern I was seeing was slightly different from that. There were disasters, true. And each low was lower than the low before as well. But there were highs too, and each high was higher than the one before. First Homer gets excited by the sight of Sputnik, but then he destroys his mother's fence. Then Homer gets help and builds a more powerful rocket, but he accidentally launches it in the direction of the mine. Then Homer and his friends regroup and create a launch site out of town, only to have their rockets explode before reaching a respectable altitude. Along the way he gets encouragement from Wernher von Braun, but gets discouragement from his father. He has a successful launch and gets written up in the newspaper, but then he gets arrested when he is suspected of starting a forest fire. Then we get a whole series of disasters, but once they're past, success again: Homer proves his innocence and wins the state science fair. This is followed by the biggest fight with his father yet, and by violence caused by the miner's strike.

Do you see my point? The highs get progressively higher, but always with some new disaster to make satisfaction fleeting. Until the end, of course. So it's really more of an oscillating function. Something like this, maybe:

(Yeah, I'm a big nerd, I know.)

Anyhow, I thought this was a useful way of looking at plotting, particularly for longer works. Next time I write something long, maybe I'll try to follow that kind of rollercoaster pattern.


The movie's only real moment of fail comes at the very end, and it's a minor shame. Homer's dad finally comes out to the launch site to see what he's been so obsessed with, and together they launch a rocket and watch it climb into the sky. Impressed, his father stands there, jaw agape, for a little while, and finally gives his son the first sign of approval of his choices and interests: he puts his hand around Homer's shoulder. Unfortunately, the camera's loving closeup, the father's slow arm motion, and the placement of the two actors makes it look like Homer's Dad has an entirely different sign of affection in mind. In every single class I show this movie, the spell is temporarily shattered and the class breaks into giggles when it looks like Homer's Dad is about to grab his ass:

I didn't crop it to look that way. That's pretty much a full screen shot.


Ray Wong said...

I liked the movie. Have you read the book? It was good (especially for a nonfiction).

Joe Iriarte said...

I haven't, but I bet I would like it. Maybe over the summer I'll keep an eye out for it!

Anonymous said...

In my class the teacher's wife that was substituting showed us the movie we all started laughing at that part. A student that had Science before us told us about that part beforehand and said they laughed too. That day was fun.