So, I know nobody’s doing anything today but watching the internet for the first mention of the arrival of the Royal Baby (TM); my blog post will have nothing to do with that august personage, whoever he or she may turn out to be, so you might want to stop reading now if that’s what you’re hoping to find.
Today, what’s on my mind is story, and how keeping things uncomplicated can sometimes be the best thing you can do for whatever it is you’re writing.
At the weekend, my husband and I watched a film we’d never seen before, despite the fact it’s been in our DVD collection for many a moon. It’s a Coen Brothers movie, so we knew we were settling in for something good; I’ve since discovered it’s actually Joel Coen’s directorial debut, which (having watched the movie) is astounding. It dates from 1984, and it’s called ‘Blood Simple’.
This movie has one of the most straightforward, yet gripping, storylines I’ve ever come across. We have an unhappily married couple, the husband of which is a jealous and controlling type; we have a handsome ‘other man’, devoted to the wife of the unhappy couple, and we have a private eye turned ruthless assassin, who is a lot more astute than he looks. The film begins when the husband, Marty, suspects his wife (Abby) is having an affair, and hires the PI to keep an eye on her. When proof of her infidelity is found, Marty orders the PI to kill his wife and her lover, and to burn their bodies in the incinerator near his property. The PI, however, fools Marty into thinking he has fulfilled his duties by handing him a doctored photograph of his wife and Ray, her lover, covered in blood as they lie sleeping. He then shoots Marty with Abby’s small, pearl-handled gun, which he has already stolen from her, and absconds with his $10,000 fee and a perfect cover story. When Ray comes calling on Marty, looking for money he is owed, he comes across his body – and Abby’s gun. Thinking his lover has killed her estranged husband, he gets himself involved in the whole mess by trying to hide the body… and so the tangle tightens.
It’s not a complicated plot – it’s been done before. Love triangles, faithless marital partners, jealous husbands, wily private detectives, hapless lovers – none of this is new ground. What made ‘Blood Simple’ so good had, of course, a lot to do with the Coen Brothers’ direction and cinematography and the amazing performances of the actors, particularly Frances McDormand (Abby), but it also had a lot to do with the fact that the story was tight, controlled, and uncomplicated. It hinges on a number of misunderstandings and assumptions, perhaps (if I’m being honest) one or two coincidences, and the fact – used to wonderful effect – that people never do what you expect they will. There are also some moments of high tension, particularly around the scenes in which Ray is disposing of Marty’s body, which don’t really do a lot to move the plot along but which are nerve-tinglingly good. It’s a movie where you feel like shouting at the screen, because you know what the characters don’t, and you can see them heading for doom because they’ve simply misunderstood one another. So simple, but so brilliantly effective.
I also loved it because Abby, the wife, is a strong and intelligent woman who makes her own choices and is answerable to nobody. That’s an amazing female character now, let alone in 1984. I wish there were more characters like her in popular culture. Incredibly, her role as Abby was also Frances McDormand’s debut as a film actress.
What I learned from watching this movie was this: sometimes, a strong central plot is good enough by itself. You don’t always need interlocking subplots going back generations or overcomplicated relationships between characters – long-lost siblings, or secretly estranged couples, or one-time best friends turned mortal enemies, or whatever – and you certainly can’t ‘make up for’ poor characterisation by complicating the plot. ‘Blood Simple’ had excellent, strong characters as well as a solid plot, characters who stood individually and who were well-rounded and well-developed, characters who could each have carried a movie by themselves. I had written Marty off as a stereotype of a jealous husband – but there’s a lot more to him than that, as I learned. Abby is far from being the wilting housewife. Ray acts out of compassion and love, and is much softer than he appears, and Visser, the PI, is calculating and ever-so-slightly sadistic in his thinking, completely at odds with his bumbling, inefficient persona. Another interesting thing about the movie is the fact that these four characters, along with Marvin (a barman who works for Marty) are the main players, and the action is entirely focused on them. So, you don’t need a cast of thousands to tell a good story, either – it can be good to have a small ensemble and focus tightly on what they’re doing.
I tend to overcomplicate and overthink everything. I always have more people in a scene than I really need. I always worry that my plots are too simple and that they’ll be easily unravelled by even the least astute of readers. I’m not saying I’m a talent on a par with the Coen brothers, but even so – maybe, sometimes, less really is more.
As they say – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Perhaps this really is the best advice!