Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Horrible Danger of Boredom

More than anything on this blog, I want to give you encouragement. Not give you advice so much: mostly I want to inspire and reassure you. Most of my language will be sheathed in writer-speak since I'm a writer and I don't know how to give, say, a firefighter encouragement to do a good job (other than, you know, avoid the fire). But you can take what I say and apply it to any number of jobs, hobbies, what have you.

I try to avoid giving you preachy advice because I've found that everyone approaches writing differently. I've cobbled together my approach over years of trial-and-error, so how can I expect you to take what I say as the end all, be all?

That said, I want to give you some advice.

I was watching Sofia Coppola's movie "Somewhere" last night, and from the first frame, my writer brain started blowing steamboat whistles of disapproval. Literally one minute into the movie, I was so bored that I wanted to turn off the TV. Three minutes in, I was locked in the fetal position. Five mintues in, I wished the house would crash down on me, ending my suffering.

What could be so bad, you ask? I kid you not, for the first five minutes of the movie, Stephen Dorff (the weirdly-cast star of the movie) gets into his Ferrari and drives around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around a dirt track. There's no music. No effects. Whole stretches of dead time where all you're staring at is a blank sky. It's the stupidest five minutes in film history, and it comes right at the beginning. Honestly, after that point the movie could've been Star Wars and I would've hated it.

It called to mind some wise advice a professor once gave me: he said that if I ever depicted a character being bored a story, I should NOT let the reader be bored by it. As academic as my teacher tried to be, some little speck of him understood that fiction writing, at bottom, is not neuroscience or astrophysics, it's not geology or anthropology: it's entertainment. To allow a reader to get bored is the worst mistake a writer can make.

"But if I want my book to be realistic, I have to include pockets of boredom," you might argue. "That's how life really is." Exactly! And it's from those pockets of boredom that we're trying to escape when we open a book. So don't, for crying out loud, let boredom seep into what is meant to be a form of escape.

This is what Coppola got hugely wrong with her movie. According to IMDB, the film is about a movie star named Johnny Marco (Dorff) being bored between projects. He takes care of his daughter, but a big priority of his is to stave off boredom between movies by partying and driving around in his fast car. Can you imagine pitching this film to a studio exec? "See, this movie is about boredom. That's why it's revolutionary!" No. A movie about boredom is bad enough: at least make the character's attempts at fighting it interesting. But no, this is cinéma vérité, where we have to feel Johnny's tedium, get inside his ennui and, in the end, wish for oblivion.

No, no, NOOO! All this does is make the audience bored. It's not deep, Sofia: it's just a waste of time. Which you never want your audience to come away thinking! I only watched 20 minutes of the movie, but within those 20 minutes, Johnny was shown either falling asleep or conked out in bed half a dozen times. Ugh. Stephen Dorff seems like a nice enough guy, but I don't want to watch him chain smoking and zonked out in his jeans for two hours.

Never, ever, on any account bore your audience. They have waaaaaay too many other things to be doing than reading your boring-ass book. If you want to be experimental, then have at it. Be the next Dos Passos or Gertrude Stein. Just don't expect anyone outside of a small, insular group of brainiacs to appreciate your work. For my money, you should want your reader to identify with heart-pounding moments, not moments of extreme boredom. Give this movie a pass, and please, please learn from it.


  1. I feel better now that I know I'm not the only person out there who is breaking down movies I watch and wondering what the writer was even thinking.

  2. Yep, I know. I’m usually good at judging which movies are going to be terrible and avoid them, but this one took me by surprise because I usually like Sofia Coppola. Oh well, I’ll approach her with more caution next time. It’s amazing to me how many movies get made that are complete and utter crap. I guess it’s all about who you know out there in L.A.-la land.

  3. Hm. I'm more likely to wince and wonder how much the director screwed up the writer's script, because with screenwriting, there's a percentage involved—as long as no 1 person changes more than a certain percentage of the script, the original writer's name still goes on it. 20 writers could each change 5% to make the script 100% different, without changing the credit.

    Or so I've been told, by some folks who were in the industry.

  4. I hear what you're saying, but judging from IMDB, Sofia had a lot to do with writing the script. Which is crazy to me, because "Lost in Translation" is one of my favorite movies, and she did everything on that film. Anyway, it won't turn me off from her altogther, but I'll be more careful next time. Thanks for your comment!