Monday, July 21, 2008

AUGUST RUSH - Discovering the Heart

Author Constance Hale, in her book Sin and Syntax, divides her observations on style thus:
  • Heart = idea. The germ of the story; its conception.
  • Skeleton = plot. The bare bones of what happens.
  • Sinews and muscles = motivation. Why it happens. How it happens.
  • Flesh = characters and incident. What makes it interesting.
  • Blood = dialogue. Communication between characters and reader.
  • Skin = continuity and coherence. What holds things together on the surface.
  • Carnal Pleasures = style. What elevates a book from readable to sublime. (Kathy's note: I prefer to call this the Nerve Endings, which sounds much less . . . carnal.)

Notice that the Heart is at the top of the list, and that the story, just like the living body, cannot survive without it.

While watching August Rush, let's concentrate on the Heart, or what I'd like to call Theme of the story.

In Plot & Structure, p 130, the theme is defined as the take home value of the story. In our group discussion after watching the movie on Saturday, we followed the three POVs of Evan, (later named August Rush,) his mother, and his father. I asked what theme these three followed, and several different answers popped up. Among these, persistence and searching. In my opinion, these both had the underlying theme of faith. Without faith, Evan and his mother (Lyla) would not have stuck to their convictions. Without faith, however late in the story it showed up, his father (Louis) wouldn’t have pursued his one true love.

In Beginning Writer's Answer Book, p. 170, the question is ask: How is the story problem different than the theme? It goes on to answer: The story problem is the vehicle for the presentation of the theme. In August Rush the problem is that all three characters are separated through no fault of their own. The vehicle is their journey back to becoming a family--with all of the conflict this naturally brings.

In Plot & Structure, p. 131, we’re told that themes deepen fiction, but we must be careful not to force it. The result will be “cardboard characters, a preachy tone, a lack of subtlety, and story cliché’s." To avoid this remember this one thing: Characters carry theme—always. Set your characters in “a world where their values will conflict with each other. Allow your characters to struggle naturally and passionately. Theme will emerge without effort.” The conflicts in the movie are numerous, but because they happen so passionately with the characters, we don’t feel we’ve been preached at.

In Write Away, (pp 163 & 166,) Elizabeth George admits to not always knowing her theme in advance, and often, even though she may think she has a theme, it changes half-way through the story. If you do know your theme beforehand, you can then plan your subplots accordingly.

  • The subplot involving Lyla and Louis deals with faith in love. They meet while both are disillusioned with their lives. Their love creates a faith in another person. When they are torn apart, they flounder for twelve years, not even realizing it had been faith that made them alive.
  • Lyla's search for Evan. When she realizes Evan is still alive, she says, “It’s as if I’ve just woken up.” Faith, renewed.
  • Louis, who, after a twelve year funk, and several awkward tries, begins to have faith that his relationship with Lyla can be renewed. It's important to note, too, that although he comes from a strong Irish family, he loses faith in them when he loses Lyla.
  • Richard, the social worker, has faith in his role in the system.
  • Arthur, the street kid Evan first meets, has placed his faith in Wizard. But when Evan replaces Arthur to be Wizard's favorite, Arthur loses his faith, and eventually helps Evan escape.
  • Wizard is the antithesis to the faith theme. He has no faith in the system, and we glean, through a small part of his back story through his conversation with Richard, that Wizard was once a lost kid in the system who later grew up on the streets. (This, btw, was an excellent way to introduce this bit of back story without interruption.)
  • The little girl in the church has faith in Evan, even though she doesn't understand his gift.
  • The pastor has faith in God, and believes, after an "arrow" prayer indicated by his eyes darting heavenward, that after Evan disappears, he will be found and that all will go right for him.

Sub themes are important, too. The strongest we found dealt with loss.

  • Evan who lost his parents
  • Lyla who lost Louis and her son
  • Louis who lost Lyla
  • Arthur who lost his family
  • Wizard who also lost his family when young, and who loses Evan in the end
  • The little girl in the church who lives there with her grandmother, apparently having lost their home
  • Richard, who admits to Lyla that he had a child--once

In Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, a whole chapter is dedicated to theme beginning on page 229. Here are some nuggets that I found, but if you can get your hands a copy, please read the whole thing. It explains theme, its importance, and how to integrate it into your story.

First, present any "A vs. B" formula that represents a genuine dichotomy, (i.e. "man vs. nature," "reason vs. emotion," etc. Maass says, "When conflicting ideals, values or morals are set against each other in a novel, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict." (p. 230)

If your theme eludes you, Maass has a unique approach to help you find it. This would be your take away or what you want to say to the reader.

Beginning on p. 236, "Imagine government agents bursting into your writing room, smashing your computer, grinding your backup disks under their heels, burning your hard copy and hauling you off to prison."

He goes to say that you lose the trial and are sentenced to hang. However, a week before your execution, "the compassionate warden of the prison lends you a typewriter and paper . . . but only ten sheets." There is time to type out only one scene from your novel . . . which one will you chose?

To take it a step further: A sadistic guard seizes the scene and rips it into little pieces. All that is left is a blank half sheet that flutters to the floor. There is only room for a paragraph from your novel.

Maass instructs emphatically: "Go to your word processor right now--yes, this minute--and type out the paragraph from your novel that you would have written in prison on the last day of your life. What does it say?" This, dear writers, is called narrowing your story down to its essence. If you try this exercise, please feel free to share your experience with us by commenting on this blog post.

And finally, from p. 235, he talks about symbols. Sometimes they can be stagy and obvious, but often, they occur in a story whether the author intended them or not. These are the symbols that occur naturally, making use of what is already there. And often, the normal reader, (as opposed to the abnormal writer who reads and looks for such things,) doesn't even know they're there, but have an intuition that something is right with the story--and they like it. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love symbolism. August Rush had a couple.

  • The moon
    - Lyla and Louis fall in love to the song, "Moon Dance."
    - Evan, the boy later renamed August Rush, watches the moon from his orphanage window, knowing that his parents are watching the same moon. It helps him keep a connection with them. It's a physical thing on which he can pin his faith.

  • The music
    - It was music that brought Lyla and Louis together. It was music that brought Louis back into Evan's life as they played their guitars together. And it was music that brought all three together at the end. Music, as it occurred naturally throughout the film, carried the faith theme from beginning to end.
    - Going back to the scene when Louis joined Evan on the street and they both played guitars together, this symbolized father and son in harmony. It was in this scene that the key phrase for the theme was uttered so simply by Louis, "You gotta have a little faith." In that moment, Evan decides he must break ties with Wizard, no matter what the cost.
    - Also, Evan's rhapsody runs throughout the film, only to be replaced occasionally by other songs that move the faith theme throughout. Listen to the lyrics of each song to see how they pull the viewer through the story theme.
    - And here's a great quote by Evan himself: "But I believe in music...The way that some people believe in fairy tales."

Other cool symbolisms in the movie that I can't fit into the faith theme:

  • The professional musicians in the group discussion opened our eyes to what we had already gathered was an important part of the movie. During the parts where all three characters, Evan, Lyla, and Louis, are playing their own music, yet blending, we learn that this is called "melodious harmony." Two words that mean exact opposite of each other. Each character was playing his or her own melodies, yet were harmonizing. This symbolized that each were living their own lives, yet were still in perfect harmony with each other. A side note: The music was so beautifully and seamlessly done, we agreed that if there were no dialogue, we'd still understand what the story was about through the swells and beats of the music.
  • Another interesting thing about the music: Lyla is concert trained, Louis plays in a rock band. Evan's musical style envelops both, just as closely as his genes made him to be a part of both parents.
  • The archway--I never noticed this until it was mentioned in our discussion. A lot of things happened in that large cement archway, and it was suggested that this was the doorway to change.
  • The cross necklace--Lyla loses her necklace at the point she loses Louis. A family torn apart. We see it fall to the ground, and in Writer World, this means something significant is going to happen with that necklace. I waited for it to show up again, and it did--around Wizard's neck. Wizard is lying under the stars having a father/son moment with Evan, usurping the parental role in his life. In other words, this symbolized "the passing of the parent" so to speak.

If you haven't watched August Rush, I encourage you to do so. It's a beautiful movie of faith, love, and yes, persistence.


2. Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell, Writers Digest Books, 2004
3. Beginning Writers Answer Book, edited by Kirk Polking, Writers Digest Books, 1987
4. Write Away, Elizabeth George, Harper Collins, 2004
5. Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, Writers Digest Books, 2001


Lynette Sowell said...

One little piece of irony I noted that was at the beginning of the movie, the musician playing "Moon Dance" at the arch--well, later, we discover that was actually Wizard. It was sort of interesting how just about everyone was connected in the story. I've heard some slam this movie for its "coincidence." What do you think about that? Did it suspend your disbelief? :) ~~Lynette

Kimberley Woodhouse said...

The music in this movie completely thrilled me. I'm a music geek (music major in college/teacher for upteen years.) And after discussing the music with my music-minded buddies the first time I watched it - I found the discussion on the craft even more adventurous this time I watched.

The "coincidence" factor Lynette mentioned that others slammed - was actually beautiful to me. If it was such a "coincidence" why did it take them 11+ years to re-connect? :)

We talked about Faith as the theme - Heather and I had both come up with the same word - "Hope." And for those who are down-trodden watching the movie, that's what they grab onto - the hope that this family will be re-united.

It was a really good discussion - thanks for this great idea Kathy! I look forward to more.

Kathy Kovach... said...

Lynette, the scene you mentioned, with Wizard playing "Moon Dance" went completely by me until the second time I viewed the movie. Yes, everyone was connected in some way, and I thought that was very well done.

As far as coincidence, this was brought up in our discussion. I had no problem believing everything that happened because it was presented as more of a fable. I felt the story outweighed any attention to detail, (such as the lights in the condemned building where the street kids lived--as our Lynnette with two "n's" pointed out.)

Kim, thank you for sharing your expertise with us on the musical aspect of the story. because of your insight, this film went beyond art and became a priceless Renoir. Okay, I've just mixed two thoughts, music and art, but you get the idea.

I think hope was a subtheme. Hope is the desire that something will come to pass. But faith is believing it will happen, beyond your circumstances. Very fine line there, and certainly one I won't argue. There was definitely both hope and faith all throughout this movie.