Monday, January 13, 2014

Lessons from Mr. Letts

By Pamela

I find it easy, as a writer, to get lost in comparison. Is my work as good as this other writer who just got a book deal? Is my story compelling enough or important enough? Does it have enough detail/depth? I get particularly anxious when I read historical fiction and become overwhelmed by the amount of research that obviously took place. (Not to say present-day works don't require research; they certainly do.) And so my work stalls. Why bother completing something that no one will ever read?

I write women's fiction. I draw my characters from people I know or people I believe you might know. And yesterday, in my annual quest to see as many award-nominated movies as possible prior to the Golden Globes and The Academy Awards, I went to see August: Osage County.

The movie's screenplay was written by playwright Tracy Letts, who tells us a story about a family dealing with "drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, death, family dysfunction, sexual harassment, pedophilia, aging, generational change, racism, incest, infidelity, and ultimately love." What he also hands us is a story that's raw, hilarious, sad, disturbing and emotional. After the credits rolled, my friend Tracy, Joan and I sat in awe at the powerful story and marveled at the brilliant acting by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale and the rest of the ensemble cast.

What stayed with me was how this wasn't your typical Hollywood movie. No elaborate sound stage or special effects. No chase scenes. No stunt doubles (maybe one or two during the post-funeral dinner fight). Just one family trying to make its way through the chaos that surrounded them. I was so emotionally exhausted afterward, I had to take a nap after I got home!

What I learned from Letts' writing are lessons I've heard before:
  • Push your characters. 
  • Nothing is off-limits. 
  • People seldom react in predictable ways.
  • Everyone wants to be loved and accepted.
  • Laughter among pain is cathartic.
  • The past shapes your characters' actions.
  • Not everyone lives happily-ever-after.
  • Not everyone gets what they deserve.
  • It's perfectly OK to not tie the ending up in a pretty red bow.
As I dive back into my WIP, I'm feeling a sense of liberation. A freedom to let my characters go to places they might not want to visit. A license to fly a bit loose with my conflict and see what happens. Thanks, Mr. Letts, for the reminder of what makes a great story. 


  1. Totally agree, Pamela. That was a brilliant lesson in plot, character and nuanced writing. Glad it's inspired you to push further with your conflict! It's got me re-thinking a few things, too.

    1. I'm so glad we saw it. I keep thinking about the mother's Christmas boots' story and how that one little memory told us so much about how she got to where she is. Wow!

  2. Gail and I saw it today, too. Same reactions as yours. Thanks for summarizing some really good lessons here.

    1. So glad you saw it, Julie. I knew you'd love it.


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