Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 21st, 2014

The logline game

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Al Pacino in Cruising

In an interview he gave a few years ago to The Paris Review, James Ellroy told a memorable story about the origins of his novel The Big Nowhere:

I was influenced by a bad William Friedkin movie from 1980, Cruising. It has a great premise. There are a string of homosexual murders in the West Village and Al Pacino is a young, presumably heterosexual cop, who goes undercover and is tempted by the homosexual world. What an idea! Hence, The Big Nowhere. A cop in LA in the fifties gets assigned to a homosexual murder case and becomes aroused by the men he’s investigating.

I love this story because it illustrates a point best expressed by a modified version of Ebert’s Law: “A story isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it.” A movie that bungles an intriguing premise can serve as a source of inspiration for a better storyteller, and if you’re able to exploit the underlying idea more compellingly, it isn’t plagiarism, but a kind of literary transmutation. Ideas, as I’ve said before, are cheap; execution is king.

As it happens, Ellroy’s example is just one of two I’ve recently encountered of authors quietly lifting an idea from another source. The other night, I watched the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” for the first time. While reading about it afterward, I came across a story about Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies. When the episode first aired, he liked its logline—the brief summary included in the day’s television listings—so much that he deliberately didn’t watch the episode:

I love the idea so much, I’d rather think about it. Forever. The episode is called “Darmok,” and the synopsis simply says that Captain Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien who can only talk in metaphors. Wow. That sounds brilliant. How does that work? What happens? How does it end? I’ve got no idea—not seen it! But it keeps resonating with me…I’ve been thinking about that story and its potential for almost twenty years!

And while I haven’t seen the Doctor Who episode, “Midnight,” that “Darmok” inspired, I don’t have any doubt that the story is profoundly different from its inspiration. Even if we start in more or less the same place, we end up in an altogether different neighborhood.

Paul Winfield in Darmok

I’ve started to take a particularly keen interest in examples like this because the novel I’m writing now originated in similar ways. Fifteen years ago, before Eyes Wide Shut came out, there were countless wild rumors about its plot and content, many of which—Tom Cruise wears a dress! Nicole Kidman shoots heroin!—were absurdly off the mark. (In fact, Eyes Wide Shut is an almost scene-for-scene adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, which Kubrick had been hoping to film for decades, so anyone interested in the plot could have read it in the original novel long before the movie’s release.) Early on, however, there was a widely circulated plot summary that ended up in a lot of places, including Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, saying that Cruise and Kidman played married psychiatrists who have affairs with their patients. Needless to say, this isn’t what the movie is about at all. But that inaccurate logline has stuck in my head for a long time, almost for as long as Davies thought about “Darmok,” and I’m currently writing my own version of it.

And if I’m not particularly concerned about revealing this detail here, it’s because I know that whatever story you—or anyone else—would write from this prompt would have little in common with the one I’m working on now. I’ve sometimes thought that if I were a writer looking for new ideas, I’d browse through the television listings to look for a logline that seemed interesting, and then deliberately not watch the movie. Here are a few culled at random from the thrillers section on Netflix: “Moving to a new town proves even more stressful for a teenager when she learns that the house next door was the site of a double murder.” “Convinced by a mysterious woman that a death row inmate is innocent, two brothers investigate and discover a case marred by betrayal and deceit.” “A detective plunges into a murky sea of corruption when he probes the connection between a rash of murders and a notorious New Orleans mobster.” These are intriguing ideas that could go in any number of directions, and the films themselves represent only one of a huge range of possibilities. If you’re curious, the movies in question are The House at the End of the Street, The Paperboy, and The Electric Mist—but if you haven’t seen them, why not make them your own?

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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