Tag Archives: story line

Lessons from “Silver Linings Playbook”

Writers tend to watch movies with an eye toward story. I often think the ultimate test of a movie’s quality is whether it would make a decent novel. By that standard, Silver Linings Playbook (adapted from a novel) scores a touchdown—an apt analogy given the main character’s father is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan.

The best novels create daunting challenges for the main character and this movie does that from the start. Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, is released from an eight-month, court-ordered stay in a psychiatric facility as the movie begins. He suffers from bipolar disorder and lovesickness as he is obsessed with getting back together with his ex-wife, Nikki, who has obtained a restraining order against him. As if that’s not enough, his father, played by Robert DeNiro, has just been laid off from his job and is pursuing a new career as a bookie to finance a new restaurant. And the father shows signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is at times absurdly funny and at other times dark and uncomfortable for the viewer. In his hopeless quest to reunite with his wife, Pat accepts a dinner invitation from his best friend, knowing his friend’s wife is still in contact with his ex-wife. There he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who also suffers from bipolar disorder, and they bond over a conversation about the prescription drugs they’ve been given. Their relationship develops when Pat  asks Tiffany to deliver a letter to his ex-wife, and Tiffany agrees, on the condition that she can train Pat to be her dance partner in a local competition.

From there, Pat and Tiffany ride a roller coaster of highs and lows as the viewer hangs on, all the time rooting for them to fall in love. I won’t spoil it be describing the rest of the plot.

Unlike the manufactured story lines that come out of Hollywood these days, the humor and darkness in this movie comes from a real place. It is a place that features the realities of modern life: lost jobs and pensions, family tensions, and mental disorders, and, love and redemption, too. It also features real complications, not clichés. And the acting is first-rate. In addition to Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro, Jacki Weaver is brilliant as Pat’s mom, Dolores.

This movie was a sleeper, but I am glad it’s been recognized with several Academy Award nominations. If you’re a writer, see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Do you view movies in terms of whether they would make a good novel?

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Anatomy of a Story Premise

I promised to share the premise of my Nanowrimo novel, so here goes. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by a phenomenon known as “Steve Blass Disease” or “Steve Sax Syndrome.” This strange malady has afflicted elite professional baseball players. It is defined as a player’s sudden, inexplicable inability to make an accurate throw. I first encountered this phenomenon when it happened to Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although I’m not a Pirates fan, I followed Blass’s career because he grew up in my native state of Connecticut.

Blass was a very good pitcher, but he reached a new level when he won two pressure-packed games in the 1971 World Series as the Pirates overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to shock the Baltimore Orioles and win the world championship. In 1972, Blass had his best year ever, with 19 wins. In 1973, it all fell apart for him. He could not throw the ball over the plate for strikes. That season he walked 84 batters in 88 innings. By comparison, the previous season he walked 98 batters in 239 innings. He gave up an average of nearly 10 runs per nine innings.

He tried everything. Doctors examined his arm. An optometrist examined his eyes. He tried psychotherapy, hypnosis, and even Transcendental Meditation. Nothing worked for him. Two years later, Blass retired from baseball at the age of 32. He went on to become a broadcaster for the Pirates. He never found out the cause of his throwing problems.

There are numerous other examples. Steve Sax was an All-Star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers before he lost his ability to make the short throw to first base. Sax is one of the few who recovered and went to lead the American League in fielding percentage in 1989. Other players who suffered from this syndrome included Chuck Knoblauch (an All-Star with the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees), Mackey Sasser, Mark Wohlers, Dontrelle Willis, and Rick Ankiel. An excellent all-around athlete, Ankiel converted from a pitcher to an outfielder while with the St. Louis Cardinals. He now plays for the Washington Nationals.

I’ve always wanted to build a novel around a character who suffered from Steve Blass Disease. About ten years ago, I started playing around with a plot in my head. I went through a number of possible story lines. I decided the character’s throwing woes would  be triggered by a murder, specifically the murder of his closest friend and teammate. So then I had to figure out what events might have precipitated the murder. There had to be a girlfriend involved. There would be an argument. There would have to be other suspects–the kind of “red herrings” mystery writers use so well.

So here’s the premise: Rick Walsh and Angel Velasquez are bonus babies signed to big league contracts with the Boston Red Sox. One night, while the two are playing for the Red Sox’ triple A farm club, Walsh, a pitcher, returns to their apartment to find Velasquez dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The gun was found in Angel’s hand, but Rick refused to believe it was a suicide. The case was never solved. Traumatized by the killing, Walsh lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate and it ruined his career. He developed a speciality as a consultant working with troubled young pitchers, having been through this ordeal himself. Twenty years later, he is summoned to assist a pitcher, who leads him back to the murder case and the prime suspect.

This story is totally outside my genre but I am having so much fun with it. That’s the beauty of Nanowrimo.

Have you ever written anything outside your genre? How did you like it?

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