How Quentin Tarantino, Gillian Flynn and Nora Ephron helped me finish my book
by Todd Foley
My latest book Love, Or Something Like It just came out. Here’s what I knew I would need for it to succeed:
- Authentic characters
- Complex story arc
- Believable dialogue
This was was my third time at writing a piece of fiction, so I wasn’t sweating it as much as I did with my first two books. Then I remembered how hard it is to actually write and finish a book, let alone make it something of which you can be truly proud.
I marketed the book “1 big, tangled, twisted, all-American tale about love — but not a love story.” The blank page had never been more intimidating than when I was faced with the fear of my beloved characters feeling forced, their conversation fake, or the entire story freaking unbelievable.
To move the stories along without relying too much on exposition, I found a seemingly unconventional trio of teachers. Here are three masterful storytellers who helped me create complex characters, write believable dialogue and bring all the pieces together.
Quentin Tarantino: Bringing sub-stories into a single arc
This book is a collection of seven short stories, each with their own cast, plot and genre, but all interconnected to make up one large story. It’s a connection of stories. (Tricky, right?)
Quentin Tarantino is a master of bringing multiple story arcs together to create a larger narrative. His finest example of this is Pulp Fiction, with its vast list of characters and a conclusion that brings everything to one glorious, violent finale. This article from The Script Lab says it perfectly:
“Despite the definition Tarantino throws at us, the proof is in the pudding: Pulp Fiction, for all its supposed ‘softness’ or ‘shapelessness’, stands as a shining gold testament to the validity of the 5 Plot Points because of how stridently it adheres to the 5 Plot Point structure and because it uses the 5 Plot Points to tell each of the three major stories. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 15 total Plot Points to go around. The trick is finding where they go and how they fit together. Tarantino quotes the dictionary to tell you how pulpy his fiction will be, but another quote could be borrowed from Aristotle who coined the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Pulp Fiction is made better than it would have been if Tarantino had made any one of the three stories within it into its own solo feature-length film. The fact that the stories of Vince, Butch & Jules revolve around one another like the spokes of a wheel around a center (with Marsellus Wallace being the hub of the Pulp Fiction wheel) is what makes the movie endlessly endearing to watch and allows all those multiple viewings of to be so rewarding, time and time again.”
And so I took that as an awesome inspiration to make my seven lesser parts fully developed so that they could connect as one greater piece.
Gillian Flynn: Writing female characters who don’t play to stereotypes
With several leading women in Love, Or Something Like It, I didn’t want them to exist for the sake of supporting the male characters. And when I decided to write one female-led story entirely in the first person, I knew I had to get it right (spoiler: this particular story ended up being my favorite in the collection).
The old adage of “Write what you know” exists to keep us from clumsily trying to write what we don’t know, but I had let it limit myself as a storyteller. My first two books were both anchored by male characters. Sure, there were some supporting female characters, but the main narratives were driven by men. More than the mere fact that I am a man, the majority of books I read up until then were written by men. Solution? I studied complex female characters created by incredibly talented female authors across multiple genres.
Several years ago, Gillian Flynn was my gateway to complex female archetypes. In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne is a complex rule-breaker who literally and figuratively dominated and steered the book’s narrative by defying everything the reader expected from her, and took me captive as I witnessed her call the shots all the way to that controversial finale. (For the record, Gone Girl’s conclusion is one of my all-time favorites because it wasn’t at all what I saw coming, and it’s still just as chilling years after witnessing it.)
I did my best to create female characters with agency, grit and intelligence — like the fictional characters I read, the brilliant authors I follow, and the amazing women in my own life — and they ended up doing the heavy-lifting in this story.
Nora Ephron: Creating authentic chemistry
If you’ve never been on a bad date yourself, you’ve likely seen one in real life or on the TV screen. What’s the first thing anyone tells their friend when they’re asked why it didn’t work out? “There wasn’t any chemistry.”
Even after managing to create a solid structure and complex character profiles, none of that matters if the characters can’t believably interact with one another. With all this talk about Tarantino and Flynn, I obviously am drawn to complex and dark stories. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for romantic comedies as well. The tried-and-true formula sometimes gets mocked, but there’s a reason we’ll never see an end to films of this genre: we’re captivated by chemistry.
Nora Ephron is a genius and I can watch You’ve Got Mail or Julie & Julia over and over without ever getting bored. She has such an impressive roster of quirky humans who come together, form an unlikely connection, and make the viewer feel something when their romance is eventually realized. Although we see the ending coming, we still cheer when the characters finally kiss at the end of the movie. Just consider some of her famous pairings:
- Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox
- Annie Reed and Sam Baldwin
- Sally Albright and Harry Burns
These couples all seem the least likely to get together, probably because they don’t hit it off right away. But even with their initial tension and butting-of-heads, that in itself is chemistry: two opposite individuals came together and caused a reaction, and the audience is hooked to see the effects of that reaction.
Even though my book is a collection of multiple genres, each story focuses in on a unique romantic relationship. My goal was to have the reader celebrate the successful relationships, root for the potential bonds, grieve the loss of the authentic ones, and gasp at the unveiling of the darker ones. If I made their chemistry authentic, then I have succeeded in making the stories real.
But like any good storyteller, I’ll let the reader make that call.
This was wonderful. If you ever do a talk at Trinity or the Langley area I’d love to come and hear you speak, or take a workshop led by you.
Thank you! Have never given a talk but would love the opportunity to do so
I am looking forward to reading your books as you have a great fluidity in your writing style. Your point about bringing sub stories into a single arc is really strong. I’ve seen it played out but had not thought about the process it takes to make it work well. As you said, you don’t want anything to appear forced or artificial. I just had a conversation last night about cohesion between vignettes and that summed it up beautifully. Your new novel sounds fabulous. Thanks so much.
Thank you for your kind words and feedback. Writing is such an isolated craft, but the communal aspect of connecting with readers is such a beautiful thing.
Great to read your tips! I am working on my first novel. I have finished the first draft and am going over it, editing and filling in.
Congratulations! Finishing the first draft is the biggest challenge. Best of luck filling in the gaps and refining it!