Storytelling Fail

Believe it or not, this post started as a reply to Pickle Rick, in the comments below, in re: the “Valkyrie” plot to kill Mustache Guy. Stick with me:

When I first announced I was planning my retirement from the ivory tower, I got a lot of jokes about when I’d get started on my novel. It’s the standard gag about us Liberal Arts types, that we’re all frustrated artistes. You hear that joke enough, and you eventually do start contemplating it…

I quickly concluded that I couldn’t do it. The main thing is, they say “write what you know,” and what I know is the ivory tower — that is to say, an institution where all the drama is entirely self-manufactured by vain, petty people who think they’re much smarter than they actually are. That rules out most genres people actually enjoy reading right there. There’s comedy, I guess, and I considered giving that a go, but the modern university is beyond parody. Maybe Joseph Heller at his absolute apex could pull it off, but I’m no Joseph Heller. Nor am I Franz Kafka, who is the onlie begetter of the only other genre that would cover academia: Surrealist, absurdist, dystopian horror. The adjective “Kafkaesque” describes graduate school perfectly, no doubt, but if you somehow need a dose of that, just go read The Trial. Or watch the film Brazil, and imagine everyone is twice as polysyllabically self-important…

Ok, so forget academia, I thought. I’ll go the opposite route, and write what I don’t know. The problem there isn’t ignorance. Not factual ignorance, anyway, since I have lots of recent professional experience doing research, but what you might call mechanical ignorance. Guys like James Patterson and Tom Clancy and Dan Brown (who has the market cornered on “sexy professor” thrillers, damn him) get criticized for having formulaic, paint-by-numbers plots, so much so that at least one of the former two is dead and the other might as well be, since “he” seems to be mostly a name for a factory full of ghostwriters. But if you actually sit down and try to dope out the “formula,” it’s a lot tougher than it sounds. Even “Jack Ryan foils the bad guys”-level plots have lots of moving parts….

…at which point I gave the whole thing up, but the very process was instructive. Seeing how tough a time I had with it, is it any surprise that our hormone-addled, diversity-addict overlords are fucking it up so egregiously?

So bad is it, in fact, that even supposedly professional storytellers are screwing it up. The “Valkyrie” plot was really a thing that happened (the cognoscenti call it the Schwarze Kapelle), and it’s got all the makings of a great spy thriller… except one: There’s no good guy. Claus von Stauffenberg was a better guy than Hitler, I suppose, but that’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. Von Stauffenberg was a Wehrmacht colonel who’d seen action in pretty much every theater up to that point, including the invasions of Poland and Russia. It’s safe to say that one does not rise to the rank of colonel via combat in the Nazi armed forces without being involved in some shady shit. Indeed, as wiki informs us, von Stauffenberg was fine with the way things ran in Poland, and initially declined to participate in the resistance out of a sense of personal loyalty to the Fuhrer.

A movie can get away with showing mostly shades of gray, but in the case of the “Valkyrie” plot, both shades are pretty damn close to black.

Nor was the 2008 movie, starring Tom Cruise, an isolated case. A few years earlier, Jude Law and Ed Harris squared off as dueling snipers in Enemy at the Gatesset during the Battle of Stalingrad. Who do you root for, the Nazi or the Commie? The producers opt for “commie,” obviously, but their attempts to humanize the Jude Law character are embarrassing — even if we accept Law’s character as totally apolitical, no movie featuring a political commissar in a vital supporting role, not to mention “cameos” by Khrushchev and Stalin himself, can fail to remind viewers that everyone involved was awful. Even the most gripping battle scenes (and to be fair, some of them were pretty good) can’t make up for the fact that the world would be a far, far better place if they somehow both could’ve lost.

Those are high-level failures, conceptual mistakes, the kind that professional storytellers simply shouldn’t make. Not only that, though, both movies have unforgivable mistakes in the execution, at almost every level. Tom Cruise, for instance, is comically miscast as Stauffenberg. I’ve written before about how weird it is that casting directors seem to obsess over finding actors who look like even obscure historical figures.* Cruise looks a bit like Stauffenberg, I guess, but there’s simply no way a guy with his…ummm….distinctive acting style should be anywhere near a historical drama. Tom Cruise only ever really plays Tom Cruise, so “Tom Cruise dressed up as a Nazi” is really jarring.

And that’s before you consider the accents. Maybe Tom Cruise can’t do a German accent, I dunno. I seem to recall he did an Irish accent in a movie once, and that turned out ok, but again, whatever character he was playing was just “Tom Cruise with an Irish accent.” So maybe if you feel you must cast him as a German, letting him use his “natural” American accent is the way to go.** But if you’re going to do that, please, for pete’s sake, make everyone else do an American accent, too. I know Kenneth Branagh can do one. So either cast guys who can do the right accent, or, failing that, who can do each other’s accent. Otherwise you get a huge, distracting mess.

Enemy at the Gates was actually worse: Law, Joseph Fiennes (the commissar), and Rachel Weisz (the love interest) all used their native British accents… but they’re different kinds of British accent, at least in Law’s case. Meanwhile, Ed Harris (the Nazi antagonist) uses the “neutral” American accent, while supporting player Ron Perlman, who is American, does a comically over-the-top Russian… as do the guys playing Khrushchev and Stalin. It’s just weird. In both movies, you’ve got supposedly tight groups of friends (or, at least, co-conspirators) talking to each other in wildly different accents. That kind of thing is bad enough in a movie like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, which made no pretenses to historical accuracy; it’s movie-destroying in a supposedly serious, historically-based thriller.

Again, as fun as it is to talk about movies from decades ago, there’s a point to this, and here it is: These are professional storytellers screwing up some of the most basic of storytelling mechanics. It’s a lot harder than it looks, in other words, and it’s only going to get worse as people get dumber. Given all that, is it surprising how badly our political class is screwing up their propaganda? And that’s before the people who can’t figure out what pronouns to use get into any but the lowest-level command positions….

This has been your white pill for the day.



*There are a zillion examples, but I think my personal favorite is the HBO series Deadwood. Actor Ian McShane is great in the role of Al Swearingen, and he actually does kinda look like the guy in the few known historical photographs, but… who in the audience had ever even heard of some bartender from Dakota Territory in the 1870s? I mean, yeah, ok, there are a few historical figures where you have to cast a lookalike — Hitler, Elvis, maybe Abe Lincoln (though “Daniel Day Lewis on stilts with a beard” seems to have done the job there), maybe one or two more. But as thankful as I am that Ian McShane got the job — he’s just terrific — I promise you that absolutely no one would turn off their tvs in disgust if he looked nothing like the historical person.

**Whatever you call the American version of British “received pronunciation,” which is what I think they call the accent they used to teach all the aspiring poshos at the BBC before they went full retard. The “neutral,” “default,” whatever-you-want-to-call-it American accent is fascinating, and has gone through significant changes over the years. Consider the “1930s movie newsreel reader” accent. I don’t know what it’s called, but I know you recognize it. It’s fairly close to the natural speaking accent of guys like FDR. But by the 1960s, you’ve got the “Tom Brokaw” accent, which is more or less the “Tom Cruise” accent…. again, no idea what these are called, and this is all tangential, but it’s cool.***

***Since we’ve mentioned Daniel Day Lewis in passing, how about some props to him for his killer “American frontier” accent in Last of the Mohicans? I have no doubt that Day Lewis, being Day Lewis, pestered every historical linguist in North America for tips on the most “authentic” possible colonial frontier accent, though no one living has ever heard it. It was really a nice touch.

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38 thoughts on “Storytelling Fail

  1. AvatarPickle Rick

    As I’ve said before, I’ve had a passing experience with Hollywood. If you’re a history nerd, you’ve probably seen a younger Rick making some cameos in more than a few History Channel documentaries back when the History Channel actually had, you know, history on it. There’s a few more big budget historical films you can spot me in as Rick can ride horses, shoot muzzleloaders and not look like a Hollywood fag doing it, as well as knowledge of, you know, history, which was my primary gig, as a historical/military adviser. The level of ignorance some very big shots displayed in their stories, much less the nuts and bolts experience I had trying to make actors understand how 18th and 19th century men walked, talked, or behaved was a real eye opener.

    @Sev, if Deadwood had been picked up for another season, a fresh-out-of-Iraq Rick was already cast for that season that never was.

      1. AvatarG706

        When I was in school I ran with a kid down the street,
        And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed,
        But I was smarter than most, and I could choose.
        Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.
        When I was eighteen, lord, I hit the road
        But it really doesn’t matter how far I go.

    1. AvatarSeverian

      Damn, that’s too bad about not getting to be in Deadwood. My condolences…

      …or should that be “my condolences, cocksucker”? There ought to be some kind of award for the most innovative use of profanity on cable tv. Granted, the winners should all be exiled to a penal colony, but still, it’s perversely fascinating.

      1. AvatarMaus

        As I think Dr. Dre said, sometimes profanity is the only way to adequately express profundity. My sainted mother used to deplore F-bombs and suchlike so much that she intimately acquainted my siblings and me with a bar of Ivory soap (99.44% pure) to the old kisser. That is until my clever brother played back a tape of her dropping a few choice ones herself, ‘cuz in her book the only thing more deplorable was a hypocrite. I have happily let fly ever since when the occasion calls for the mot juste.

      2. AvatarPickle Rick

        I was always bummed they never got a 4th season to explore something that Westerns rarely go into, but Deadwood hinted at. Half the male characters were Civil War veterans still in their prime- Deadwood was set only 10 years after Appomattox. That was still a raw wound.

        And yeah, being in a scene with Ian McShane would have been badass.

        Another under appreciated HBO series they killed too early was “Rome”. The creators of Game of Thrones loved that show, which they modeled the early seasons of GoT on, and it shows.

  2. AvatarStevan Naylor

    It occurs to me that perhaps the novel you wanted to write – about the surreal world of small college ivory tower antics – was written by Richard Russo: “Straight Man” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. From a review: “It’s a campus novel, with a less-than-glamorous setting: West Central Pennsylvania State University, in the fictional town of Railton. Here, many of the big issues revolve around reduced photocopying budgets, and “promotion is a little like being proclaimed the winner in a shit-eating contest”. []

    1. AvatarCodex

      Science fiction or fantastical versions of the Academy novel are good value. There are not many at the grad school level, but I bet you could make it work if you were rigorous in thinking through the consequences of the fantastical McGuffin.

      If you did the story in a futuristic setting in which Christ was real (or at least in which mostbof the population – if not the academics – believed so) you will have cornered the market in sheer novelty.

      It’s odd, SF has very few stories set in a universe wherein Christ exists and the culture is Christian, despite such having existed for at least a millennia here IRL. Meanwhile there are loads of future adventures set in libertarian paradises, which have nowhere existed (the closest being the U.S. frontier which happened as part of… A Christian culture in which the inhabitants believed Christ was real.)

      1. AvatarNehushtan

        In the “Mote in God’s Eye” universe there is an established church, which seems to be Catholic. Played straight, in that most of the characters at least pay lip service to the faith, the priests are normal people and not villains, etc.

      2. AvatarSteveDoc22

        ‘A Canticle For Liebowitz’ explores a post apocalyptic world where the Catholic Church exists in a largely Medieval form and plays a largely positive role as modern technology is gradually reintroduced to mankind.

  3. AvatarSteveDoc22

    I have watched “Patton” w/George C. Scott in the titular role multiple times. The casting is impeccable, especially Scott as Patton. The battle scenes appear accurate enough and easy to follow. The Germans speak German, which adds to the sense of realism. The directing, acting, music, everything clicks.

    1. AvatarWOPR

      The equipment though was so off, it always hurts the scenes. I love the movie though.

      One of the few WWII movies to have a lot of truly authentic WWII equipment was “Kelly’s Heroes.” They shot it in Yugoslavia which had been given a ton of US WWII equipment. The interesting thing about the film is how they walk the line of Kelly and his group being self-serving thieves and actually helping the war effort.

    2. AvatarNehushtan

      What I didn’t like about “Patton” is that they didn’t seem to have any way to portray what made him a great general. It wasn’t pearl-handled revolvers, slapping privates or directing traffic on muddy roads. It was mostly his ability to plan, and extract information from reports.

      1. AvatarSeverian

        I suppose they tried to convey that with the “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” scene. I don’t think it necessarily got that particular point across, but it was a great scene. George C. Scott’s second most amazing line read ever

        (losing out only to his immortal groan: “Arrrgh, my groin!!!” in the Springfield Independent Film Festival award winner “Man Getting Hit with Football”).

  4. Avatartexinole

    Re: Enemy at the Gates, one roots for

    1) The commie, since he’s just a good ol boy caught in the grinder, then

    2) Ed Harris, bc he’s too goddamned cool not to, and he’s coming out of retirement to avenge his son, then

    3) Zaytsev (sic) again because Ed went and strung up a little boy

    Credit to the filmmakers for showing the Soviets butchering their own soldiers and for the political commissar rekking communist ideology in one line right before actually helping Zaytsev.

    Oh, and [spoilers]

    1. AvatarPickle Rick

      The thing is, 2) and 3) never happened in Zaitsev’s real story, which was good enough as it was without Hollywood screwing with it. That’s the problem I saw firsthand. They couldn’t bring themselves to just tell the story, they had to add their “creativity” to it, which always ended up being some weird ridiculous shit. For a Stalingrad movie, the 1993 German film is far superior.

      Credit to Bob Hoskins (RIP) for chewing the scenery as Commissar Nikita Khrushchev.

      1. Avatartexinole

        Point taken, though the modern movie remains rewatchable imo.

        Guess I shouldn’t hold my breath for the Hollywood biopic of Hans-Ulrich Rudel, huh? Who would be the protagonist…Father Time?

      2. Avatarmmack

        “Credit to Bob Hoskins (RIP) for chewing the scenery as Commissar Nikita Khrushchev.”

        The bunker scene is memorable, especially when he chews out the general:

        “I have to report to the Boss.”

        Places revolver on table in front of the general he’s just chewed out.

        “Perhaps you’d prefer to avoid the red tape.”

        Later when the other officers tell him to shoot the generals that have retreated and deport their families he angrily replies “Yes, that’s all been done”

        1. AvatarSeverian

          Absolutely the most believable, true-to-life, historically-accurate scene in the movie.

          Which is why the movie never should’ve been made. Nazis, Commies, what’s the diff? It’s like the Dallas Cowboys playing the New York Yankees — no good person could hope for any other outcome than “both team buses drive over a cliff, along with all their fans.”

      3. AvatarSeverian

        I’ll second the 1993 German movie. It’s great. On a personal note, though I couldn’t care less about celebrity stuff in general, there are a few exceptions for “famous people I’d like to meet.” As you know, Johnny Depp is one (yeah, sue me), but one of the very few others is Thomas Kretschmann, the guy who played Lt. von Witzland in Stalingrad. I really only want to meet him to ask him two questions:

        1. When did you first look in the mirror and think “Damn, I look exactly like Reinhard Heydrich’s wet dream of a Nazi officer, I bet I can make an entire movie career out of it”? and
        2. What does that realization feel like?

  5. Avatarurbando


    I think you could write top-drawer stories if you tried your hand at it (maybe you have). Since I watch no TV, movies, or sports I do read a lot of fiction for entertainment. You have several literary gifts in your quiver: the ability to analyze, your understanding of human nature, and your near unparalleled comic genius.
    If I must swallow daily black pills I prefer to do it accompanied by your inimitable vigor and wit. Y’know what they say, “a spoon full of sugar . . . ”
    I remember the Cruise version of Valkyrie. The only thing that stuck in my mind was the verisimilitude in Cruise’s satchel – the worn leather looked quite authentic. The Stalingrad sniper movie didn’t work for the reasons you cite. I have watched a contemporary Russian min-series called The Bomber (English subtitles) on youtube and yes, the Cat Fanciers are depicted as evil as heck – everybody’s monster.

  6. AvatarWOPR

    You could write a whodunit in a university setting. Our lone, sane detective has to figure out the murder of a fierce, independent, and brilliant identifying as female professor amidst a rogues gallery of insane colleagues.

    1. AvatarSeverian

      The problem with any campus satire is that everyone is insane in the same basic way. The feminist Marxists have deep and long-standing beef with the Marxist feminists, but unless you live among them, none of it makes any sense. Listen to Z Man’s “Xirl Science” segments. They’re funny in small doses, but soon enough they all sound exactly the same.

      1. AvatarWOPR

        I wouldn’t try it as satire. I would play it straight. Of course, every normal person would take it as satire.

  7. AvatarRed

    I decided years ago to simply try and enjoy a movie as told. Suspension of disbelief keeps me from getting too upset. At best I expect the history to be warped and all but the most basic of facts to be wrong.
    Recommended books are where history is learned. Someone on here mentioned “A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages” by Charles Oman. It filled a massive hole in my understanding of European history. He is very clear about his sources and where he and his contemporaries were uncertain about the historical record.

    Sev, I think a “Trashcanistan Chronicles” would be both entertaining and useful. Maybe not immediately but soon enough.

    1. AvatarSeverian

      Many thanks to all of you for the “Mid Atlantic Accent.”

      However, in re: film accents, you all are… how to put this delicately?… as wrong as a cranked-out Hunter Biden at a furry convention. Highlander is the worst accent movie of all time. There can be only one, and this is it. You’ve got a French guy playing a Scottish guy, and a Scottish guy playing a Spanish guy, and I think I’m forgetting a few. That was 1986, so basic storytelling fails have been going on for half a century now — you’ve got the world’s most famous Scotsman under contract for a movie called The Highlander, and you cast him as…. well, here’s wiki:

      Sean Connery as Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez, an Egyptian immortal. He later lives for a time in Japan and then later in Spain. Learning the Kurgan has targeted Connor MacLeod, Ramírez tracks down the Highlander and becomes his mentor in the ways of immortals.

      Short of casting Groundskeeper Willie as the Congo’s most famous ice fisherman, I don’t know how you could top that.

  8. AvatarAnonymous White Male

    “These are professional storytellers screwing up some of the most basic of storytelling mechanics. It’s a lot harder than it looks, in other words, and it’s only going to get worse as people get dumber.”

    I don’t think writers are getting dumber. I just saw a movie recently called Ass. I was wonderfully written, hilarious, and I even cared about the asses on the screen. If there was a weakness, it was the lack of back story on the asses, their hopes and dreams.

  9. Avatarjwm

    Severian, you could take your already well-honed wry and dry style, Shift into first-person freshman, and play a later-day Holden Caulfield scamming his way through university without doin’ a damn thing other than crafting (not so) clever excuses, and getting over on every woketard professor, and student for the cynical fun of it.
    Could be a fun write, too.


  10. AvatarSeverian

    I appreciate all the suggestions, and encouragement, but “writing a novel” was, itself, a narrative device for the purposes of this post. Frankly, of all the many reasons I don’t write long form, chief among them is the main reason I’m not a liberal: I’m just too lazy.

    Novelist Larry Correia* said he writes something like 10k words a week. Given that a standard page is something like 250 words, that’s 40 pages a week. I’ve done that – I think my personal record is 43 pages in a *day* — but that was a 16 hour day, back in grad school, under optimum mass production conditions.** I just don’t have that kind of work ethic. Hell, I barely get through most *posts* here, if we’re being honest — I put about 45 minutes in, then either have to hit publish as-is or trash it, as the sense “this sucks and you’re wasting everyone’s time” becomes overwhelming.

    Given that almost all “first” novels are usually the author’s third or fourth book-length effort, and given how generally even those stink, that’s more misery than I care to experience.

    *I never could get into his novels, but not for lack of trying. I felt like I owed him the price of a few books, anyway, for fighting the good fight. His blog is terrific.

    ** meaning “optimum for churning out pages,” not “good for me personally.” It was, in fact, very bad for me personally — one of those “either spend every waking moment working, so as to keep your mind utterly occupied, or go on the kind of bender that ends in a Mexican jail” type situations.

  11. Avatartoastedposts

    “The Big U” by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is (lately) a shitlib, but somehow some truths leak into his novels.

  12. AvatarNehushtan

    @toastedposts:Stephenson is (lately) a shitlib

    Hate to break it to you but he always was. As a writer he lets his characters speak for themselves, which is increasingly rare nowadays, the people with Wrong Opinions must be portrayed as evil and dumb. Because he didn’t do that, people thought he was right- or libertarian-leaning but he never was.

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