Sunday, March 22, 2009

Conflicts of Epic Proportions

Couldn't do Irish Month without mentioning Far and Away, written by Bob Dolman, co-written and directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman -- none of whom are Irish, by the way. However, they manage to capture that excitement when America was new and immigrants flocked here to make their dreams come true.

I have heard that to have good conflict in your stories you should put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. This movie pummels Cruise's character, Joseph Donelly, until he is bloody and bruised, often literally. After a tiff with a landlord, (in this case one who owns the land that the Donelly's live on and work,) Joseph's father is hurt. He dies in his son's arms, but comes back to tell him something. "You're an especially odd boy." Once Joseph gets over that, his father speaks the theme of the story. "Without land, a man is nothing. . .Land is a man's very own soul."

With his father gone, Joseph is faced with eviction, and he takes revenge on the landlord. After several failed attempts at killing him, he ends up getting hurt by his own weapon. The landlord nurses him back to health with the intention of hanging him when he's well enough. He escapes and is caught by Stephen Chase played by Thomas Gibson. Stephen is the arrogant manager of the property and is in love with Shannon, the landlord's daughter. Joseph spits on Stephen who in turn challenges him to a duel.Shannon is a rebel and has learned that they're giving away free land in America. She helps Joseph escape and together they board a ship bound for the new world.

Joseph pretends to be her servant on the journey, a job thrust upon him unwillingly. But he keeps up the pretense until they port in Boston because Shannon has paid his way. They find out from a kindly gentleman that to claim the free land, they must race for it in Oklahoma. Worried about the expense, Shannon tells the man she has silver spoons and can sell them. He helps her find a place, but then steals them from her. He is shot by someone with a similar complaint against him. The spoons scatter and a crowd gathers. Shannon's spoons are gone, picked up by other hungry vultures. Joseph rescues her bag from being the next victim and gets Shannon out of the street. Now, poor Shannon and Joseph are homeless.

He finds an Irish community and is given a room. He tells the landlord that Shannon is his sister, hiding the fact that she is from money to keep her from being tossed out. This particular group looks with disdain on the wealthy, regardless of whether they just lost their fortune in a mad spoon frenzy. They get jobs at a chicken processing plant, which I'm sure is way beneath Shannon's social status.

Back in Ireland, Shannon's parents' home is burned to the ground. They, too, decide to try their hand in America and look for Shannon.

While living together, they pretend to hate each other, but in truth are becoming attracted to each other. One night Joseph leaves, frustrated at his feelings and stumbles upon a barehanded boxing match in a bar. He does some pummeling of his own and wins the match, which thrusts him into a new social status. He becomes a celebrity overnight as he wins match after match and instead of saving the money, buys suits and hats.

Shannon becomes frustrated with his buying habits, knowing they could be well on their way to Oklahoma. He brags that he's making the most money and she vows to out-do him at earning cash.

He heads out to the biggest match of his boxing career, and while there sees Shannon dancing in the bar. This doesn't settle well. The men in the club urge him to fight and offer $200 to back him. Shannon encourages him to fight one more time so they can have enough money to go to Oklahoma. He agrees, but during the match, sees Shannon being pawed. He leaves the match to protect her from the roving hands of one of the backers who happens to be a city council member. He attempts to leave the fight and save her, but the other man thinks he's still in and throws a sucker punch. Joseph loses the match and he is thrown out of the club and onto the street. When he wakes up, he sees Stephen asking people if they'd seen Shannon.

He runs to the room he shares with Shannon. There, he finds the councilmen who had backed him rummaging through his personal belongings in his apartment. They want their $200. They steal it from the savings and toss both Joseph and Shannon onto the streets, bullying the landlord by telling him not to let them back in or the place would be shut down.

Joseph and Shannon are homeless -- again.

Up until now, these characters have been beaten again and again with various sized rocks. Did I, as the audience want it to stop? No! It kept the action moving. If they had gone to Boston, hopped on the first train heading west and fulfilled their dream, I would have been disappointed. Conflict equals action, and action equals page-turners. Keep them turning pages, and you have acheived the ultimate goal of a writer.

Having said that, an entire movie or book of rock-throwing can get tedious. It's best to craft in some downtime, just don't make it too long. The next scene gives the audience a brief breather.

Joseph and Shannon are cold and hungry. They find a seemingly empty house of affluence and break in to stay warm and find food. Shannon warms to Joseph, realizing what he sacrificed to protect her. He continues to sacrifice when they pretend they belong there and he takes on the servant's role once again. She tells him she'd rather pretend they are married, letting him know that she feels they are equals now. This is the turning point in their relationship. As they "play house," the real owners show up. When the couple flees, Shannon is shot. Knowing she'll die without help, Joseph makes the ultimate sacrifice and takes her to where her parents are staying in Boston.

Knowing her family will never let her near him again, he heads west and works on the Trans-Continental Railroad. After many months, it seems he's abandoned the thought of owning land. But he has a dream where his dying father reminds him of his desire -- a scene that echoes the beginning of the movie. He joins a wagon train and finally makes it Oklahoma days before the Land Run of 1893.

He chances upon Shannon and her family, who are getting ready to claim their own land. Shannon appears cold toward him, leaving Joseph disappointed. Stephen sees the encounter and threatens Joseph with death if he sees him near her again. It appears Shannon has chosen Stephen.

Our rock beaten Joseph now has no girl to share his land and, unfortunately, no horse for the race. His only options at this late date include a horse ready for the glue factory and one with the spirit of his Shannon -- wild and unattainable. He opts for the aging horse, but alas, the poor thing doesn't make it through the night. This leaves him with the spunky horse, who clearly resents being told what to do.

The race is on, and Joseph chases after Stephen and Shannon, knowing that Stephen has broken the law. They had been told not to search for land before the race, but he has found out that Stephen had done just that. Shannon falls off her horse and Joseph is the first to get to her. Stephen is torn between getting to the land before anyone else or following through on his threat to kill Joseph. He decides to go back for Shannon, not wanting to be bested by the common man. They fight a couple of times as Joseph breaks away to claim his land at Shannon's encouragement. But, Joseph falls, hitting his head on a rock. Shannon rushes to his side, sacrificing her dream (just as Joseph had for her during the boxing match.) She rejects Stephen and stays by Joseph's side as his life slips away.

This would be the ultimate rock, wouldn't you say? After all Joseph has been through, must he now die without any satisfaction? Thankfully, the writer manages a happily ever after despite Joseph dying. He had set it up in that very first scene where his father slipped away, came back to deliver a message, and then slipped away for good. Joseph goes through a similar process, coming back to tell her that the land means nothing to him without her. He dies, and as Shannon mourns, professing her love for him, he is revived, (a scene that would seem contrived if it weren't for the opening scene with his father.)

Together, they grab his flag and plunge it into the ground claiming the land that has taken two and half cinema hours to obtain.

Whew! Throwing rocks is exhausting, but so worth it if it means your readers will keep the book in their hands and lose sleep...possibly their jobs. We can only hope.

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