Tag: 2001

What Can We Steal From David Leavitt’s “The Scruff of the Neck”?


Title of Work and its Form: “The Scruff of the Neck,” short story
Author:  David Leavitt
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in 2001’s Volume 86 of The Southwest Review, one of those all-time-great journals that will never take any of my work.  (I’ve come to grips with that.)  If you have access to a library, ask your librarian to hook you up with the story through one of their databases.  That’s what librarians do.  That’s what they love.  The story was reprinted in Mr. Leavitt’s collection The Marble Quilt.  Then it was reprinted in Mr. Leavitt’s Collected Stories.  (And what a bargain!)

Bonuses: Here’s an interesting Guardian review of Collected Stories.  (Reviewer Edmund White hypothesizes that “The Scruff of the Neck” may have been influenced by Edith Wharton’s novella, “The Old Maid.”)  Mr. Leavitt composed a poem for Quickmuse; he was given a topic and was limited to 15 minutes of composition time.  Even better, his keystrokes were recorded so you can watch what he did in realtime.  Pretty cool.  Want to see Nath Jones read from Mr. Leavitt’s work?  Sure, you do.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening Sentences

Rose is an elderly woman who is lucky enough to have a living aunt, Minna, who often asks her for a little help from time to time.  The story begins as Rose enjoys a visit from her sister’s niece, Audrey, a young woman who is interested in building an epidemiology of the family tree.  Before her visit, Audrey asks Rose to dig up birth certificates and any other official documents she can find that will help her writer her thesis.  Rose, of course, obliges her descendant.  Audrey arrives and asks about the family, eventually dropping an implied bombshell.  I don’t want to ruin everything already-Go read the story!  I chose one of Mr. Leavitt’s database-accessible stories for a reason!-but you can rest assured that Rose’s trip to the supermarket to help nonagenarian Minna find her car takes on an added dimension by the end of the story.

Mr. Leavitt introduces the theme of FAMILY in the very first sentence of the story:

Lily’s girl, Audrey, called Rose and asked if she could interview her; she was getting her master’s degree in epidemiology, she said, and for her thesis she wanted to prepare a medical history of the entire family.

The story is about genealogy and its implications; the protagonist’s family tree is made an issue from the very beginning.  We get three generations in one sentence, don’t we?  Rose is the eldest (clearly not the mother), Rose is the second generation and Audrey is the youngest.  What an efficient way to begin the story!

Now, the great Lee K. Abbott offers his students very good advice: the writer does all of the work so the reader can have all of the enjoyment.  Does Mr. Leavitt violate this dictate?  After all, it seems as though he’s forcing you to do a little work by figuring out this family tree.  I would argue that Mr. Leavitt is very much in the clear.  He NEEDS to slip the genealogy into the exposition and it should probably come early.  Mr. Leavitt performs a graceful pirouette by twirling Rose’s relations into the first sentence of the story.  The second sentence is spoken by Audrey during the critical phone call:

“From soup to nuts” was how she put it.  “And since you and Minna are the only ones of the brothers and sisters who are still alive, obviously it’s worth the trip to Florida to talk to you.”

This story is all about Rose decoding her origins and Mr. Leavitt contrives his narrative such that the reader spends the first two sentences aligned with Rose in this pursuit.  The opening of the story immerses us in the narrative and subtly coaxes us into solving the central mystery.  Best of all, we don’t even know that we’re being led along.

And while I’m talking about exposition…

It’s often hard for us to release basic information about our characters, isn’t it?  Well, Mr. Leavitt lucks into a very easy method by which to tell the reader a protagonist’s family tree.  A few pages in, you’ll notice that young Audrey asks for confirmation regarding the names and ages of Rose’s children.  Audrey simply reads off the names and birthdates while Rose interjects a bit of characterizations about each.

Ordinarily, reading this kind of exposition might seem a bit tedious, but Mr. Leavitt folds it nicely into the flow of the narrative.  (I also love that Mr. Leavitt devotes so much attention to hammering the ages of the characters home.  It might otherwise be difficult to really feel that Rose is “old,” but Minna is much older still.)

This section of the story is also notable because Mr. Leavitt largely abandons dialogue tags and description.  Why is this okay?  Because he was so careful to establish the characters and their situation, the dialogue is all we really need to enjoy the story as it progresses.  Speeding up the narrative at this point in the story is also critical because this section contains the story’s “big reveal.”  The reader can devote more of his or her attention to this reveal because there is literally less prose between dramatic beats.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that the reader will only do as much calculation as they must.  Yes, one who reads “The Scruff of the Neck” must figure out Rose’s genealogy.  A reader of Harry Potter must learn a bunch about Hogwarts.  The exposition must be fun, natural and graceful.
  • Find interesting and graceful ways to insert what might otherwise be boring details.  If birthdates, for example, are critical to your story, don’t just dump them into the story in a manner that is disconnected from the narrative.
  • Trim other elements from your story to allow the important facets to shine in critical moments.  Once the stage is properly set, all we really want is the dialogue that advances the story.

An Open Letter of Thanks to Roddy Doyle for “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”


Dear Roddy Doyle:

I am writing to let you know that I admire your work.  I read The Commitments several years ago and admired it greatly.  At the moment, however, I would like to tell you how “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner” offered me a brief moment of relaxation that I truly needed and what the story taught me about writing craft.

This time of my life is very stressful.  I’m bogged down by some of those family issues that can sometimes hold us rapt for decades.  I’m not where I would like to be in my career.  I have been so unsuccessful in romance that I’ve just given up on the prospect of ever having a happy relationship.  (I hasten to point out that the blame is entirely mine.)  A few days ago, I picked up a copy of The Deportees and Other Stories.  The book, thankfully, lived in my car until a few mornings ago, when I found myself up and about at a very early hour in frigid Oswego, New York.  I decided to go to a local diner to have a good, old-fashioned American breakfast.  Needing something to read, I brought The Deportees with me to the table.  My goodness, my problems were gone for an hour and a half as I read a bunch of the stories in the volume.  Instead of spending time alongside money and personal concerns, I passed the time with Larry the loving father, the unnamed young man in love with a Nigerian girl and Alina the nanny.  I love the generosity with which you treat all of your characters and the way you treated your marginalized characters.  At no point are you preachy and boring; the immigrants are real people who simply happen to be from elsewhere.  

I also have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Ireland and its writers.  I spent a wonderful week in your country many years ago and instantly fell in love with the Emerald Isle’s people, food and beer.  (Even the weather, though rainy, suited me just fine.)

Most of all, I am writing to thank you for teaching me about writing craft through your story.  “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner,” originally published in serial form in Metro Éireann and later revised for The New Yorker, is about Larry Linnane and his family.  Larry prides himself on his very progressive outlook on life.  He acknowledges that his grown daughters are human beings and have sex lives and he loves his wife Mona as an equal.  Then his daughter Stephanie mentions Ben, a Nigerian immigrant with whom she has been spending time.  As was the case in the movie from which you borrowed, Larry suffers a number of internal conflicts regarding his daughter’s relationship with a black man.  I don’t want to ruin too much of the story for my readers, but the story is most certainly a fresh look at the subject matter.  (And it’s a lot of fun.)

It’s definitely a very small issue, but it’s one about which I care deeply: what are writers to do with alternative methods of casting our dialogue?  As you know, many writers eschew quotation marks completely, which adds some ambiguity at times.  (I sometimes feel as though the writer is challenging me to put them in so I can know which words are spoken by the character and which aren’t.)  You used the same technique in “Guess Who’s” that you did in The Commitments, placing em-dashes before each line of dialogue.  I admire the way that this choice keeps the lines flowing while keeping the reader informed as to when he or she is reading words that are spoken by characters.

I knew when I read the introduction to your collection that I was going to enjoy the stories.  The brief comments make it clear that the stories were going to be about interesting social developments in Ireland and that you were going to tell me real stories about real characters; you saw that your message was clearly subordinate to your responsibilities as a storyteller.  Further, I loved the conceit of all of the pieces.  You wrote 800-word chapters as your deadline approached.  Sometimes, this resulted in what you call “tennis racket moments,” a reference to the “character in a U.S. TV daytime soap who once went upstairs for his tennis racket, and never came back down.”  Perhaps it was unintentional, but you’ve offered your fellow writers wonderful advice.  Even if our stories aren’t published in serial form, it’s a very good idea to set a deadline and to just WRITE, regardless of the loose ends that we can see poking out of the story as we compose.

Most importantly, your writing is FUN.  During that lonely diner breakfast, I read a horror story, an amusing family drama that ends somewhat unexpectedly and a story about a teenage boy who demonstrates his love for a young Nigerian woman in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated.  I can’t say that I’ve read all of your work, but it is safe to say that you have a wide readership because you appeal to our hearts and our minds in equal measure.  Books such as yours surely capture a great number of readers who may not yet fully understand the awesome power of literature.

So congratulations on all of your well-deserved success and I wish you the best of luck in 2014 and beyond.





Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:

  • Hold your reader’s hand at least a little bit when it comes to dialogue.  So you want to make the artistic choice to omit quotation marks?  Smashing.  Just make sure you give us some easy way to know when your characters are talking.
  • Compose in serial form…even if that’s not how your work is eventually published.  Add 1000 words a week to a story each week and you’ll have a great first draft in a month’s time.  (That draft will probably be filled with dramatic peaks, too!)  Ignore the little mistakes that you notice along the way.
  • Make sure your work is FUN!  We need to win back the proverbial “woman on the bus” who falls into her seat after a long day of work and reads a story on her way home.

What Can We Steal From Alicia Erian’s “Standing Up to the Superpowers”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Standing Up to the Superpowers,” short story
Author: Alicia Erian
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally included in Ms. Erian’s collection, The Brutal Language of Love.  The very interesting journal draft: The Journal of Process included it in their Fall 2012 issue (number two), placing a previous draft of the story against the final draft.  Random House has been kind enough to offer the story for free on their web site.  But why not buy Issue 2 of draft?  They seem like really nice people.

Bonuses:  Cool.  The journal Booth presented an interview with Ms. Erian.  Are you jealous?  Ms. Erian gave an interview to New York Magazine, too.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Morality in Fiction

Beatrice had a very flirty relationship with her professor, Fetko, who didn’t care for a student named Shipley who asks too many questions in class.  “Get him drunk and fuck with his head,” Fetko says.  So Beatrice does.  She begins a sexual encounter with him and then falls asleep, thereby convincing Shipley he has raped her.  Shipley is like a puppydog; he befriends Beatrice in hopes of having a relationship, but Beatrice is pretty lost herself.  She flunks out of school and doesn’t see Fetko again until he and his wife come into the clothing store where she works.  When the wife goes into the dressing rooms, Fetko asks Beatrice to “say something” to him while he “listens,” and she does.  The final scene in the story depicts Beatrice and Shipley as friends; he is still interested in her, but she is just lost lost lost.

Ms. Erian discussed the writing of the story with the editors of draft in-depth, so we have an explicit record of her process.  Ms. Erian reveals that she had a friend who confessed “that his first sexual experience had been with a girl who had agreed to sleep with him, then passed out.”  We’re all in agreement that the gentleman should have waited; and he felt massive after-the-fact guilt as well.  Ms. Erian was no doubt disappointed in her friend, but she didn’t allow her morals and ethics to get in the way of the germ of a good story.  As she points out, “I found this story deeply compelling.  Anything with great shame attached to it is something I want to write about.”

Ms. Erian would not have had a story if she had focused on the perfectly understandable moral outrage.  It can be hard, but it’s important to be objective when we want to write about extreme unpleasantness and evil.  The point of the story is that each of the characters occupies a gray area and relates to each other in poorly defined ways.  If Ms. Erian or her narrator thought of the story with politics first, then the story would suffer.  We all have very strong beliefs and those are great in the right contexts.  When you’re trying to represent reality through fiction, the narrative must come first.

Another choice that Ms. Erian made is to drain her narrator of judgment.  The narrator very seldom offers criticism of anyone’s actions in the story; instead, it is simply reporting:

  • She left his office, stunned.  She went home and masturbated, then fell asleep.
  • She could’ve scared Fetko, she knew—could’ve threatened to turn him in if he didn’t keep her grades up.  But the thought of this reminded her too much of that first night with Shipley:” how, because she had set out to harm him, the whole thing was really all her fault.
  • He glanced at the dressing rooms, then back at Beatrice.  “Say something good to me,” he whispered.  “Say something else,” he said, and she did.

Withholding the narrator’s judgment allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the story.  This is not the mark of a writer having weak convictions.  Quite the opposite: it’s an indication that the writer is brave enough to take her readers on a journey with her instead of a guided tour.

What Should We Steal?

  • Compartmentalize your morality when you construct your characters and plots.  Look, no one thinks Hannibal Lecter is a righteous dude.  But he must be depicted as a real human in order to make him compelling and realistic enough to chill us.  Thomas Harris had a reason for not calling Silence of the Lambs by a different title: Can You Believe that this Terrible Man Ate People?  I Hate Him Too! (Sniffles).
  • Empower your narrator to withhold judgment.  It’s the writer’s job to present the story and the reader’s job to decide what he or she thinks of it.

What Can We Steal From Smart Pop Books?


Title of Work and its Form: Smart Pop Books, publishing company
Author: Smart Pop is an imprint of BenBella Books (On Twitter: @smartpopbooks)
Date of Work: Founded in 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found:  Smart Pop’s books can be found in fine bookstores everywhere.  You can also purchase them directly from BenBella.  Why not do that?

Bonuses:  Well, Smart Pop is the one who offers you bonuses.  They are kind enough to post selections from their books on their web site.  (I would link to the essays directly, but I am guessing the temporary sample links go away.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creative Mindset

Pop culture criticism can be a double-edged sword.  On one hand, you are exploring deep thoughts about a book or television show or movie that means a great deal to you.  On the other hand, you sometimes find yourself launching into an intelligent critical defense of Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo Child.  Smart Pop books have meant a lot to me because I genuinely enjoy thinking about and discussing the many popular creative works that I love.  (For evidence, look no further than this very site!)

An imprint of BenBella Books, Smart Pop publishes engaging and intellectual books that analyze and reconceptualize some of your favorite pop culture artifacts.  You like Mad Men?  They’ve published a book about it.  You’re a big fan of everyone’s favorite web slinger, Spider-Man?  There’s a book about that, too.  I like the Rule of Threes, so I’ll mention their April 2013 book containing essays about the classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

The great value of Smart Pop’s books (and their worldview) is that they are doing at least two very important things:

  • They make scholarship accessible to people who don’t realize they are really scholars
  • They enrich our understanding of cultural artifacts that often go without the critical consideration they deserve.

“Scholarship” often gets a bad name because it’s really a societal subculture.  Many folks love Shakespeare, but never read a single article from Shakespeare Quarterly.  That’s okay, I suppose, but when you understand the theory behind the writing that you produce, you’ll inevitably do better work.  Smart Pop and similar publishing concerns put a heaping spoonful of sugar into their medicine.  Veronica Mars may never break its way into some kinds of journals, but there are plenty of fans out there who want to read about what Veronica Mars really means.  Smart Pop is happy to oblige.

Smart Pop is a great entry point into this scholarly subculture.  Let’s say you have a fourteen-year-old child who loves the Buffy TV show.  When you put Smart Pop’s Buffy anthology into his or her hands, you’re subconsciously beginning their training as a scholar.  They begin to learn the language of the scholar and the way those folks think about storytelling and about life.  You don’t need a child in order to reap these kinds of benefits.  I just re-read Neptune Noir to celebrate the Veronica Mars movie and it hadn’t occurred to me how well the production team chose cars for each character.  (I still associate LeBarons with Veronica.)  I had thought deeply about the Season 1 finale, but I enjoyed having another scholar walk me through it in their own way.

The point is that no artist creates their work in a vacuum; we’re all inspired by the culture we consume and the discussions that are happening around us.  Am I likely to write a show like Downton Abbey?  Sadly, this probably won’t happen.  But I love hearing my friends talk about it and watching the Sesame Street parody of the show and realizing that everything I create sheds light on the “more important” works of the day.  It’s true that most of us are writing for all time, but we’re also writing for the age.

This web site should make it clear that I love Shakespeare and Renaissance drama and literary novels and other examples of “high culture.”  I’ve also written about “Baby Got Back” and How I Met Your Mother, examples of “low culture” to varying degrees.  The popular culture offers us a vast buffet.  You don’t want to mound the iceberg lettuce on your plate because you’ll have no room for the olives and onion and cherry tomatoes.  Great writers consume a balanced diet of stories, from the vulgar to the sublime.

Easy full disclosure: Smart Pop has long been on the list of publishers with whom I want to work at some point.  (Partial list: MAD Magazine, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Greywolf Press, The Normal School, Hobart and about a zillion other publications and companies.)  These are all long-term goals and most will likely go unfulfilled, but we work toward them nonetheless.  The important thing is that these goals push a writer to absorb the tone and structure that each of the markets are looking for.  Even if you never see your byline in a Smart Pop book, the work you do as a result of your ambition to fulfill that goal will lead you in other meaningful directions.

What Should We Steal?

  • Admit you are simultaneously a scholar and a producer of cultural artifacts.  Even if you never attended grad school (or any college at all), all writers are part of the fraternity of scholars.
  • Acknowledge that your work is part of the contemporary zeitgeist.  Yes, this includes your historical novel.  By simple virtue of the time and place in which you grew up changes your understanding of the world.  Easy example: today, it’s hard for us to understand how anyone could be in favor of slavery.  Three hundred years ago, even if you opposed slavery, you would be more likely to understand the motivation behind it.
  • Appreciate high and low culture in appropriate proportions.  Fine, go listen to Ke$ha.  But make sure that you love Beethoven, too.
  • Set your sights on the kind of publications you want to publish your writing.  Establishing these kinds of discrete goals can help you immerse yourself in the corners of the publishing world that are most appealing to you.

What Can We Steal From Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things?


Title of Work and its Form: The Shape of Things, play
Author: Neil LaBute (Cool!  Here’s a list of Mr. LaBute’s favorite ten films from the Criterion Collection.)
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and was published by Faber and Faber.  In 2003, Mr. LaBute released a film version of the play that starred the excellent original cast.  Here is the trailer:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation

Evelyn is a beautiful artist.  Adam is a somewhat plain schlub who works as a security guard in a museum.  The couple meets as Evelyn is about to…customize some art that Adam is supposed to protect.  Why in the world would a hottie like Evelyn want to go out with Adam?  (The audience discovers the truth at the end of the film.)  Through the course of the play, Evelyn convinces Adam to improve himself: to get a haircut, to lose weight, to dress in stylish clothing.  Adam’s friends notice a change in him and wonder about Evelyn’s true motivations, which she reveals in the climax of the play.  (I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t seen it.)

Mr. LaBute’s script is surprisingly sparse.  Mr. LaBute tells you enough about the stage for you to understand what is going on, but the script is really a series of conversations.  It’s clear that the flow of the dialogue and the naturalness of the characters was of primary importance to the playwright.  In real life, people talk over each other and misunderstand each other and interrupt each other all the time.  Mr. LaBute wanted that tone to come through in the dialogue he wrote and, eventually, in the performance of his actors.  What did he do in the script to accomplish this goal?  Let’s take a look at the very first five lines of the play as written by Mr. LaBute:


…you stepped over the line.  miss? / umm, you stepped over…


i know. / it’s ‘ms.’


okay, sorry, ms., but, ahh…


i meant to. / step over…


what? / yeah, i figured you did.  i mean, the way you did it and all, kinda deliberate like. / you’re not supposed to do that.

I must confess immediately that I usually don’t like it when writers omit quotation marks or refuse to follow capitalization rules.  (After all, those conventions become conventions for a reason!  They make prose easier to read!)  In this instance, I can certainly respect what Mr. LaBute has done by eschewing capitalization.  Doesn’t it make the lines seem like snippets of conversation instead of big pronouncements?  I can imagine that actors at a table read would automatically imbue their performance with an interesting flow, which certainly seems like the playwright’s goal.  I love his other “trick” without hesitation.  What do those slashes mean?  Mr. LaBute tells his reader in an introductory note:

the / in certain lines denotes an attempt at interruption or overlap by a given character

Those forward slashes serve as a green light to the actors to play around with the delivery of the lines a little.  Adam and Evelyn are about to become lovers; shouldn’t there be some kind of awkwardness as they feel each other out?  The forward slashes are also an unobtrusive way to get this point across.

Even better, look at all Mr. LaBute did with just those five first lines.

  1. Evelyn transgresses against societal convention by getting too close to the artwork.  What does this tell us about her?  Adam is wishy-washy in doing his job and asking her not to deface the art.  What does this say about him?
  2. Evelyn knows she’s breaking the rules.  She corrects his pronoun usage.
  3. Adam isn’t really forming a sentence in that third line.
  4. Evelyn states very plainly that she is the kind of person who will ignore societal convention if she feels like it.
  5. Adam is still wishy-washy.  He won’t stand up to her, even when she’s about to break the law.

This brief exchange sums up the play as a whole.  Even though some “crazy” things happen during the narrative, Mr. LaBute has prepared us for all of them by hitting us with the truth in the first twenty seconds of the play.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ alternate punctuation and ignore the rules of writing if it will serve your work.  Reading is a crazy process that goes on between your eyes and your brain (and then between different parts of your brain).  Decide if and when you need to manipulate the reader’s understanding of the words, down to the way they appear on the page.
  • Allow your characters to announce themselves immediately.  First impressions are important, right?  Examine the first things your characters say and do to make sure they arrive with a bang.

What Can We Steal From David Mirkin’s film Heartbreakers?


Title of Work and its Form: Heartbreakers
Author: Written by Robert Dunn and Paul Guay & Stephen Masur, Directed by David Mirkin
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and can also currently be viewed on many video streaming services.  You’ll be thrilled to know that Heartbreakers was released on VHS.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

In Heartbreakers, Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt play a mother/daughter team of grifters who run a simple con: Weaver gets a man to marry her so Hewitt can lure the husband into a compromising position.  Thanks to community property laws, the mother gets a juicy settlement in the divorce.  What could foul up the arrangement?  Falling in love.  What do you think happens in the course of the movie?  They both fall in love and this forces them to question the ethics of their scam and blah blah blah.  The plot of the film is as predictable as it is comforting.  And the movie isn’t all that bad.  The ensemble is good, the clothing is attractive and South Florida looks beautiful.

This is clearly a con artist movie in the tradition of Paper Moon and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  The screenwriters needed to make sure their plot had lots of surprises while keeping those surprises organic.  Think of it this way: it’s not a surprise if Jean-Luc Picard shoots someone with a futuristic laser gun.  It’s a huge surprise if the characters in Downton Abbey solve a problem by shooting at each other with futuristic laser guns.  When you’re telling a story, the reveal of a plot twist must be organic and believable, or else your audience will be freed from the spell you are trying to cast.

Oh, these are obviously spoilers.  But the movie is a decade old, so it’s okay.  I’m going to examine two of the film’s many twists to see what we can steal (or not steal) from the film’s screenwriters.

  • BACKGROUND FOR TWIST 1: The whole conceit of the movie (it falls around the fifteen-minute mark, of course) is that mother and daughter need to make a bunch of money to pay the IRS back taxes from their previous grifts.  (The IRS Agent is played by Anne Bancroft.)  Jennifer Love Hewitt worries!  How will they make that much money?  She agrees, reluctantly, to stay with her mother for one last Big Score.
  • BACKGROUND FOR TWIST 2: Weaver begins the film by conning Ray Liotta out of…the amount doesn’t matter.  A bunch of money.   Ray Liotta runs a chop shop of dubious legality and is an easy mark; guys like him don’t like to get cops involved.

The screenwriters had a lot of choices.  We don’t HAVE to see Anne Bancroft again.  (Even though she’s the best.)  We don’t HAVE to see Ray Liotta again.  But the screenwriters made the perfectly legitimate choice to keep the characters involved in the narrative.  This requires, Dear Reader, an explanation for their actions that is both organic and emotionally valid.  I submit that the screenwriters did not accomplish this goal in a manner that is organic or emotionally valid.  (Especially in the case of Ray Liotta’s character.)

After the Liotta con, the film is centered in Florida.  We see mother and daughter con their way into a sweet hotel suite and choose their next target.  Then a one-minute scene is cut-and-pasted into the film.  Ray Liotta is sad!  His employee notes that he’s smashed twelve picture frames because he’s been staring at his wedding picture non-stop for…who knows?  The passage of time isn’t clear.  Liotta has a plan: he’s going to get Weaver back.  No matter what.  And then we don’t see him again for an hour.  That’s the problem.  If Liotta is going to be a meaningful part of the narrative, he can’t ONLY be around when the writers need him.  Yes, his motivations were made clear, but this plot element isn’t organic, as we don’t spend enough time with him.  David Mirkin proved himself a comedy specialist with work on The Simpsons and Get a Life and he does able work in this film.  The movie is already two hours long, so he really COULDN’T add several scenes in order to weave Liotta into the film more felicitously.

There’s another brief EXPOSITION ALERT scene in which Weaver has lunch with…oh my goodness!  It’s Anne Bancroft!  And it turns out that Anne Bancroft was Sigourney Weaver’s mentor, called in to give Jennifer Love Hewitt a reason not to strike out on her own!  Again, after the brief scene, we don’t see Anne Bancroft until the very end, although she is mentioned during another plot twist.

What Should We Steal?

  • Surprises must be inserted into the plot in an organic manner.  We must believe the twists and turns within the context of the story.  If Ray Liotta really wanted Sigourney Weaver back (and who could blame him) then the audience must see some of his struggle.  We can’t just be TOLD that he’s dedicated to finding her.
  • Each surprise in your story must also be resolved in a logical manner.  Unsurprisingly, Gene Hackman’s character dies while he’s trying to make love to Sigourney Weaver.  A nice chunk of screen time is devoted to transporting the body and staging the body so as to make it look as if he died alone…and we never hear about it again.  No one investigated his death and the post-mortem damage to the corpse?  No one interviews the girlfriend?  The film is supposed to be set in the “real world.”  In the real world, the police ask questions and stuff.
  • The focus must be on the story that you really wish to tell.  It’s great when a con artist story features unrepentant grifters who don’t magically find morality.  But I don’t mind one in which they do.  (Heartbreakers, of course, is the latter.)  Instead of focusing on the emotional transformation of the women—which was clearly the writers’ focus—the film spends an awful lot of unnecessary time showing us the Gene Hackman con.  While we love Gene Hackman, we don’t care as much about him as we do the emotional foci of the story.


BONUS LIFE ADVICE YOU CAN STEAL: Don’t bring your young children to the 10 p.m. showing of a grownup movie.  I saw the film in the theater with an ex-girlfriend.  Some folks decided to bring their children, who proceeded to run around the theater and talk to us during the show.  Don’t worry; I didn’t blame the children.  They were acting like children.