storytelling lessons of the hateful eight

Characters don’t have to be likable.

The eight are indeed hateful. Even with Major Warren, who is positioned as the “hero” (sort of), Tarantino makes sure we know some pretty evil stuff about him — end not just Han Solo-type scoundrel stuff, either.

O. B., the stagecoach driver — and not one of the eight — seems okay, but we learn almost nothing about him, and his (at least relative) niceness doesn’t help him much.

But so what?

Shakespeare didn’t worry about whether his characters were likable (at least as far as I can tell). For a more recent example, see Chinatown. That’s a great movie, and everybody in it is awful.

All questions don’t have to be answered.

Is Chris Mannix really the new sheriff of Red Rock? Are there really fifteen more members of the gang? Did the death Major Warren describes really take place? Did it take place in the way he describes?

You can theorize, and come up with some estimates of probability, but you don’t know for sure.

In trying to figure out the answers to the questions above, you can try to rely on following who knows what, and when, but Tarantino explicitly iforms us that the characters are having conversations that we’re not privy to. Which makes it even more challenging. And fun.

Don’t break a rule partway.

One key to breaking rules is to break them right out in the open. If you try to break them sneakily, you will get caught.

In the classic Western Stagecoach, John Ford had to set up a few shots of the stagecoach that broke the “360 degree rule” (see below). When people pointed this out, Ford became, to say the least, testy (even more testy than usual, I mean).

In the early parts of this movie, Tarantino shows the stagecoach going from left to right in one scene, and then going the other way in the next. He does this more than once — just so you can tell that he’s doing it deliberately.

So much for the rules that they teach in film school. 🙂

The 360 degree rule: As I understand it, in portraying three-dimensional action on a flat screen, you have to allow for the viewer’s perception. For example, you’re going to film an actor going through a doorway, going outside. You’re going to show him both inside and outside the house. For the shot inside the house, you set the camera on the actor’s right, so that he’s moving across the frame from left to right.

In that case, you have to set up the camera for the outside shot in the same position, in the actor’s right. If you set up the second shot on the actor’s left, the audience’s perception will be that the actor is now going on the opposite direction (right to left).

Some people try to extend this rule to cover all sorts of other on-screen movement, like a stagecoach racing across Monument Valley, but, as Tarantino shows us very deliberately, it doesn’t apply that broadly.

(Orson Welles used to tell about the first day he heard about this rule, when he was making his first movie. He was so stunned that he shut down production for the rest of that day so could go home and think about the implications of this. Coming from a background as a stage (and radio) director, it had never occurred to him.)

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i find television confusing

I haven’t watched television in — as far as I can remember — twenty years. Something around that anyway.

I own a TV set — an old one, not the modern flat kind — and it’s started to develop problems. I use it to watch DVDs, and now there are a couple of areas of the screen where the colors are off.

(Sometimes I do watch TV shows on DVD, mostly Firefly, Nero Wolfe, and Ellery Queen.)

So, time to replace the set, right? But the problem is that TVs have got a lot more complex since the last time I bought one. There are all sorts of different connectors now (I don’t even know what HDMI is, and apparently it’s already passe). There are also various ways to get video from a tablet to a TV set, and I don’t understand any of them.

Plus, TVs mostly seem to be monstrously huge now. I really don’t want to have a TV that’s going to be the biggest thing in the room.

But mainly I don’t want to have to devote a lot of time and brain power to learning about a damn TV set. I think that, for now, I’ll tolerate the color problem (at least until it gets worse…). And for the movies I have on my tablet, I’ll survive without “throwing” the video to a larger screen.

I enjoy learning technical stuff, when the subject is something I’m actually interested in. TV, not so much.

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i like structure!

(I was going to say “I love structure!” — but I think people use “love” much too freely these days. If you love your iPhone, or whatever software you write with, I think you have a problem.)


There are, more or less, two types of writers: those who always tell their stories in proper (chronological) sequence, with maybe the occasional flashback, and those who, at least sometimes, don’t.

Right now I’m thinking about group #2.

For writers in group #1, those who always tell their stories in order, that’s probably just the default option — maybe it’s never even questioned.

But for a writer who sometimes goes back and forth and all around, to go consistently frontwards in a particular story must have been a conscious choice.

I thought of this with The Hateful Eight. Some of Tarantino’s earlier pictures (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) play a lot of games with time. But The Hateful Eight does not. It is quite straightforward, with one — clearly labeled — flashback, and this must have been the result of a deliberate decision.

What did Tarantino gain by this decision?

Seriousness? In general, as far as I can remember, his movies have become more straightforward — in structure — as they have moved more to explicit social and historical commentary.

Inexorability? This is specific to The Hateful Eight. Throughout the movie there is the sense that, as Samuel Beckett put it, something is taking its course. Given the people involved, how could this story have ended any differently than it did?

Truth? Maybe. Time does, after all, move forward in the real world. You can want it to pause or rewind, but it won’t.

Interesting to think about…

My first two novels hopped around in time in different ways, but when I moved to writing mystery stories, I straightened out the chronology. Mostly this was because mystery stories are perplexing enough in content — it seemed counterproductive (and potentially annoying) to add an additional level of trickery in the form. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do that — just that you’d better have a darned good reason for going in that direction.

With mystery stories, there are some (unwritten, as far as I know) rules about the ways you are allowed to trick the readers, and other than those you’re supposed to “play fair.”

All that being said, I do enjoy a story that jumps around in time, if it’s done well. I remember the first time I read Roger Zelazny’s Roadmarks (where every chapter is either “Chapter One” or “Chapter Two” — and where I found out later that the Chapter Twos were placed in between the Chapter Ones at random) and thought, “Hey, this is my kind of book!”

This is also one reason (of many) that I enjoyed the movie of Cloud Atlas (as I talked about here)

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bloomsday and (not) related subjects

First of all, it’s Bloomsday!


(Okay, yeah, I meant to post this yesterday. 🙂 )

This pleased me: “Christo’s Newest Project: Walking on Water

My mother was a huge Christo fan. She would have enjoyed reading about, and thinking about, this project.

The comment that there should be a web cam completely misses the point, though. As with The Gates in Central Park, there is no substitute for actually being there. Some things can’t be conveyed by a computer screen, no matter how high the resolution.

There was an interesting post over at The Debutante Ball about how, basically, all stories are either “a person goes on an adventure” or “a stranger comes to town.”

A lot of stories do fall into one or the other of those categories, obviously.

Hey was my comment:

“I think that, in general, mysteries don’t fall into either of those categories. A minority are ‘a stranger comes to town,’ and a few are about going on an adventure, but I think, in very broad terms, mysteries are a result of urban living, where the mystery, and possible danger, is not the stranger from out of town, but the people down the hall, or across the street, who you kind of know but don’t really know.

“Because the murderer usually isn’t the stranger (the stranger can be a great red herring, though 🙂 ), but the person who’s always been there, quietly, but whose inner life you don’t actually know anything about.”

I’ve also been thinking about Shakespeare. I think the theory would have to be stretched quite a bit — maybe beyond the point of usefulness — to cover King Lear or Othello.

It does cover Hamlet quite nicely, though. One of my professors in college said that the key was that Hamlet had been to college.

So, having been educated, he was a stranger coming back home — not the person he had been before. He was therefore, my professor asserted, a 17th century mind in a 13th century situation.

Which he was, ironically, completely unable to deal with.

Which makes me think of Roger Zelazny’s novel Today We Choose Faces, which is based on the premise that what makes a story interesting is the right person in the wrong circumstances. For example, switch Hamlet and Othello. If Hamlet had been in Othello’s situation, he wouldn’t have been fooled by Iago’s primitive (no evidence, after all) allegations. If Othello had heard the message from the ghost, he would simply have gone ahead and killed Claudius. So, two very short and uninteresting plays.

Oh, and there’s this:

Helen Mirren Joins Fast 8 Cast (Meaning It’ll Be Even More Badass Than We Thought


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some links, and some opinions

So, I was working on a blog post — around a week ago — and then I found an article that I wanted to link to. And then another article. And then I realized I had some things to say about each of the articles I was linking to.

And then it was a week later and I had a very long, and rather disjointed, blog post. Which was not yet yet done.

Okay, time to fish or cut bait — or some such appropriate cliche.

Here are the links — which are mostly about Harry Potter, so perhaps I should mention that I’ve never read any of the books and I’ve only seen two or three of the movies.

J.K. Rowling Just Can’t Let Harry Potter Go

I think that there are two different questions here:

1. Rowling said she was done with the Potter world, and now she’s decided she’s not. Big whoop. History is full of performers who retired and then un-retired later. People sometimes marry partners they’ve already been divorced from at least once.

People change their minds. This is sometimes a really good thing, since some decisions turn out to be wrong. Also, circumstances change.

2. On the other hand, I don’t agree with adding to, or revising, a fictional universe by social media. The only thing that counts is what’s in the stories. In a hundred years, the books will still be there, and the rest will have fallen away.

Did Shakespeare ever mention in a casual conversation in a pub that Ophelia was an excellent chess player?

Nobody knows and nobody cares.

JK Rowling tells of anger at attacks on casting of black Hermione

On one hand, I like the fact that, in theater, race isn’t that big a deal for performers (unlike movies). In the versions of Les Miserables that I’ve seen, for example, the Thénardiers have always been white, but Éponine, their daughter, has been played by various actresses who are not white.

On the other hand, I really like the fact that Rowling apparently never specified Hermione’s race in the books, and nobody noticed. I always think it’s great to tweak the assumption that so many people make — that all fictional characters are white (and straight) unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise.

Comma Queen: Whichcraft–That vs. Which

I need to watch this one again. I get the concepts “restrictive” and “non-restrictive” (I’m pretty sure), but the examples for “that” and “which” are still fuzzy for me.

(Here’s my shorthand for “restrictive and “non-restictive” as applied to commas, by the way: “Jan Sleet’s daughter, Ron, came into the room.” It gets a comma because Jan Sleet only has one daughter, so “Ron” is extra information. If the great detective had more daughters, then you’d need the name to know which daughter was being referred to. In that scenario — no comma.)

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women (in refrigerators), six (secret), eight (hateful), and life (on mars)

Georgina Comarty did a good post on how and when to kill your characters:

I made this comment:

“You do have to be careful with the ‘It drives an essential change in another character’ idea, though. There’s quite a tradition in comic books, for example, of female characters being killed (or raped or something else) mostly to make the male main characters feel and react in certain ways.”

Then I saw this in the review of the new X-men movie at

“How many more wives and daughters will be killed in these kinds of films in order to give a male lead some angst?”

Therefore all the more convincing me that I’m not going to rush out to see the picture.

Also on that website, there was this piece, which further clarified my thinking about The Hateful Eight:

It contains this observation:

“First, let’s analyze the individuals the filmmaker puts in the cabin that serves as the movie’s stage: there is a black man (Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren) and a representative of the racist Confederation (Bruce Dern’s General Smithers); there is a guy who supposedly got rich by becoming a partner in a venture (Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage) and the poor stagecoach driver who is required to work more than everyone else (James Parks’ O.B. Jackson); there’s representative of the Law (Kurt Russell’s John Ruth) and one who threatens the Order (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy); and there is, finally, the British guy who symbolizes those who colonized America (Tim Roth’s Oswaldo Mobray) and the Mexican man representing the colonialist nature of the newly formed country (Demián Bechir’s Bob). We soon discovered, also, how General Smithers massacred a battalion of black soldiers, how Major Warren massacred a contingent of Indians, how Minnie (the owner of the cabin, who was black) hated Mexicans and how everyone seems comfortable in beating or threatening Daisy, the only woman in the group.

“It does not require much imagination, therefore, to see how the space shared by all those people from different backgrounds is a representation of America itself…”

This expands on the observation that I settled on last time: “…a parlor-room epic, an entire nation in a single room.”

Well, Secret Six, one of my favorite comic books, has been cancelled. Again.

Not that surprising, really. The restarted series wasn’t as good as it was the previous time around, and even at its best I often wondered who the target audience was supposed to be.

By the way, Gail Simone, the writer of Secret Six, was one of the people to identify the “women in refrigerators” syndrome I referred about above. So, it is both pleasing and appropriate that, as the article puts it, “…Simone quietly undid one of the great travesties in DC history: the murder of Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis.”

Sue was the wife of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. They were one of the great comic book marriages. Ralph was never a first-string hero — he had rather goofy stretching powers, but he was basically a detective. They were pretty much the comic book Nick and Nora Charles — zipping around the world solving mysteries and having a great time doing it.

Sue was never a fighter, so it was particularly inappropriate for her to be killed.

And now she’s back, which is as it should be, and the dysfunctional super-villains of the Secret Six got a really nice send-off. Like the Fast and Furious movies, and Firefly/Serenity, it was always the story of a family — a family made up of some not-very-nice people.

And, finally, I thought recently that I was in the mood to hear some new music from Lorde, which led me to the recent Brit awards, where she sang David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

You can watch the first half of the clip, with the speeches by Annie Lennox and Gary Oldman (accepting the award on Bowie’s behalf), or you can skip ahead to the performance (around nine minutes in).

The most moving part is that the musicians are Bowie’s long-time band, most of whom had played with him for many years (decades, in some cases), but I do have to report that Lorde nailed it.

A very appropriate farewell.

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