What Can We Steal From Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction?
Title of Work and its Form: Pulp Fiction, Feature Film
Author: Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the trailer for Pulp Fiction. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should run right out and do so now.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Pulp Fiction is the second film by Quentin Tarantino, a man who learned to write and direct movies by…watching a zillion movies. (The principle, of course, translates to the written word. If you want to write, you have to read. A lot.) The film tells three separate stories:
- “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”- Vincent Vega, a drug-addicted mob enforcer played by John Travolta, has been asked to take the boss’s wife out for a night on the town. Vincent is reluctant; if anything happens to Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), he will become a “grease spot.” Vincent and Mia have a nice dinner and conversation…until Mia snorts Vincent’s heroin, believing it is cocaine. She’s overdosing, and Vince must save Mia’s life–and his own.
- “The Gold Watch” – Butch, an aging boxer played by Bruce Willis, has been paid by Marsellus to throw his final fight in the fifth round. Instead, Butch double-crosses Marsellus, planning to move far, far away with the money he earned. All goes well until Butch learns that he needs to go back to his apartment to get his watch, a family heirloom. Butch knows that Marsellus has taken steps to turn him into a grease spot, so he has to be very careful.
- “The Bonnie Situation” – Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent have retrieved a package that is important to Marsellus. Oops! On the way back, they accidentally shoot the man who helped them. Now they need to figure out how to dispose of the car and how to make sure that their savior’s wife, Bonnie, doesn’t freak out. That’s why you call in The Wolf (Harvey Keitel).
The stories unite in the end, but the film is notable for its non-linear structure. The events don’t occur in chronological order; this confuses some first-time viewers. (“Wait!” They might say. “How can John Travolta clean out the car when Bruce Willis just shot him?”) The non-linear structure allows Mr. Tarantino to put a new spin on “old” stories. As Mr. Tarantino will happily acknowledge, there are a zillion gangster movies. There are a zillion crime films and a zillion heist films. In order to make something wholly his own, Mr. Tarantino sliced and diced his story, rearranging it in such a way that his film would feel like something new.
This flexing of Mr. Tarantino’s narrative muscles sets the film apart from its genre roots. Now, I’m not saying that “genre” is a dirty word. I love mystery stories and science fiction novels and they’re not INHERENTLY un-literary. When Mr. Tarantino rearranged the structure of his film, he was bringing the movie out of simple genre filmmaking. What’s the difference? In many genre stories, the author has his or her mind on the conventions of the genre. Tarantino wanted to make a great “movie,” not a great “mob movie.”
The non-linearity of the film also adds emotional resonance to some of the moments. Marsellus (Ving Rhames) is a somewhat distant character until the moment Butch hits him with his car. We’ve gotten a couple cool monologues that establish he’s not someone you want to mess with and the indirect exposition from other characters. (Just ask Tony Rocky Horror what Marsellus is like!) In a different film, the audience wouldn’t have spent so much time with Marsellus’s wife; aren’t we more likely to feel for Marsellus once we understand what a loving husband he is? Once Marsellus and Butch are in the basement, we’re prepared to truly feel empathy for him. (The scene is unpleasant, but fascinating.)
What Should We Steal?
- Play with structure to breathe new life into a classic form. Countless poets have written countless odes. How can you change the form a little to set yours apart for your reader? Lots of writers enjoy writing love stories…what structural twists can you employ to make yours different from all the rest of them?
- Add emotional resonance by spoiling the end of your story. Jules and Vincent have some very deep, philosophical chats, the last of which is in the diner at the end of the film. The audience knows that Vincent will someday be shot dead because he is choosing a path different from the one Jules has decided upon. Jules is spared because he is “walking the Earth,” Vincent is killed because the Bonnie Situation didn’t impact him as deeply as it should have. This emotional resonance would be missing if Tarantino told his story in a more conventional manner.