Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writerly Wednesday: Writing Lessons Learned from Forrest Gump

Thanks to the super-convincing awesomesauce words of S.P. Sipal, I’ve decided to do a series of posts based on the writing lessons we can learn from movies (I do believe I may have found my niche *throws confetti*). 

Last week we visited John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. This week we’re going to visit an even bigger blockbuster of a movie: Forrest Gump.

Plot per IMDB: “Forrest, Forrest Gump, is a simple man with a low IQ but good intentions. He is running through childhood with his best and only friend, Jenny. His ‘mama’ teaches him the ways of life and leaves him to choose his destiny. Forrest joins the army for service in Vietnam, finding new friends called Dan and Bubba, he wins medals, creates a famous shrimp fishing fleet, inspires people to jog, starts a ping-pong craze, creates the smiley, writes bumper stickers and songs, donates to people and meets the president several times. However this is all irrelevant to Forrest who can only think of his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, who has messed up her life. Although in the end all he wants to prove is that anyone can love anyone.”

  • Symbolism – a strong story element: Remember the white feather that just floats along in the beginning of the movie…then reappears at the end? That particular light-as-air feather packs a BIG meaning, especially when Forrest says at the end of the movie, "I don't know if Mama's right or if its Lieutenant Dan, I don't know if we each have a destiny or if we're all floating around accidental, like on a breeze." The best part is that this is one of those symbols that represents a wide variety of meanings to different people.  Here are two interpretations from the cast of the movie as an example:
    • Tom Hanks’s Interpretation: “Our destiny is only defined by how we deal with the chance elements to our life and that’s kind of the embodiment of the feather as it comes in. Here is this thing that can land anywhere and that it lands at your feet; it has theological implications that are really huge.”
    • Sally Field’s Interpretation: “It blows in the wind and just touches down here or there. Was it planned or was it just perchance?”
I suggest taking a look at the Symbolism Thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse for more ideas of how you use this element throughout your own plotting. Like I said, regardless of why you use it and what it means to you,  it’s a powerful element that’s open to interpretation by the reader…and it’s something the reader will forever remember in the back of their mind (I always think of Forrest whenever I see a feather).
  • Develop you minor characters:  In this particular movie we not only follow Forrest, but we also follow several other characters: Jenny and Lt. Dan.

  • Jenny: When we first meet Jenny (Robin Wright Penn) she’s a little girl and the only kid who offers a place for Forrest to sit next to on the bus to school. Throughout their friendship she never judged Forrest. Sure, she may have asked him within the first few minutes of their meeting, “Are you stupid or something?”, but after that she leaned on him in her times of need: when her father abused her, when she needed a place to rest and deflate, when she knew the end of her life was in sight. Her journey is a memorable one in the fact that she begins her journey into adulthood with emotional issues due to her abusive childhood and like many others, she deals with those in the only way she knows how: by numbing herself with alcohol and drugs. Eventually she cleans herself up (thanks to Forrest for taking her in) and becomes responsible when she has a child and that within itself is where I believe her character arc truly resonates and shines. Yes, every story is mainly following a single character, but there are other characters that the reader (or viewer) yearns to learn about, to care about, to root for. Jenny is one such character and her existence in itself was a symbol to Forrest.
    • More on symbols: Throughout the story Jenny is a symbol for Forrest. To him she represents all that is wonderful and good. He listens to her when she tells him to run (which saves his life in Vietnam and starts a jogging craze across the country), she unintentionally pulls him through the rough times, and she’s the one that started him on the path to greatness – his rock or foundation, so to speak. Without her being in his life he would’ve never ran like the wind and pushed past his disability…thus allowing him to run like hell from bullies…thus getting him into college to play football…thus causing him to graduate college where he then enrolled into the Army…thus saving his life once again by telling him to run if he ever got in trouble while in Vietnam…and so on and so forth.  What would’ve happened if Jenny’s character hadn’t been followed and developed alongside Forrest?

        • Lt. Dan Taylor: Lt. Dan (Gary Sinese) is another character we just wanted to root for, but we didn’t necessarily do so until after he’d been knocked down to his lowest level: when he lost both legs in the war and pulled Forrest out of his bed one night and practically cried in his arms over feeling like a cripple (this is something that he and Forrest, unbeknownst to Lt. Dan, had in common since Forrest had to overcome that particular obstacle at a young age) and stating that he’d been cheated out of his life’s destiny by Forrest. Throughout the course of the movie we watched as Lt. Dan entered Forrest’s life after a TV interview where shortly after, he defended Forrest to two women who called him stupid. In effect this opened Forrest’s eyes a bit to the fact that he and Dan had another thing in coming: Forrest didn’t like being called stupid just like Dan didn’t like being called cripple. Lt. Dan’s character takes a turn after he joins Forrest on his shrimpin’ boat, lovingly called Jenny, and finds a newfound outlook on life after challenging God during a horrific storm – this is where he finally thanks Forrest for saving his life. In the end, Lt. Dan appears with new titanium alloy limbs, a fiance, and a smile on his face. Where would this movie have been without that particular development of Lt. Dan? I can’t even imagine it, can you?
      • The art of show don’t tell: This particular movie is a prime example of ‘show don’t tell.’ Here are a few examples:
        • When Forrest can’t get into school due to his low I.Q. or 75, his mother takes things into her own hands to ensure her son receives equal treatment by *ahem* meeting the needs of the man in charge (so to speak).
          • We weren’t told that she had sex with the man and Forrest never thought twice about it. Instead what the story showed is Forrest hearing disturbing-type noises that night, followed by the man leaving his home stating (I’m paraphrasing here), “You’re mama sure does care about your education, boy.” Even without the noises, the viewer can figure out what happened between them with just that statement. To quote some of the best advice I’ve received from Lisa Gail Green: “Trust the reader!”
        • Before Forrest goes to Vietnam, he visits Jenny.
          • While Forrest states that Jenny finally got her dream to finally be on stage, singing with her guitar, what is shown is that she’s actually a performer in a strip club. We didn’t have to be told because we could deduce it from the fact that the men in the crowd were screaming for her to move her guitar aside and show them some action.
            • Sidenote: While we know what’s really going on and we’re seeing how her life has declined, that’s one of those moments where it’s really great to see the world through Forrest’s eyes.
        • Historical writers will like this one: When the men who are looking for the ‘fuse box or somethun’ near Forrest’s hotel room – the one where President Nixon moved him.
          • Since we’ve all had our history lesson we really didn’t need to be told exactly what was happening. Putting two and two together for the viewer showed us Forrest was the one who busted the five men breaking and entering into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex.
        • Jenny’s death – the one where she states she has some kind of virus, one the Dr.’s can’t figure out.
          • Given the timing and what we know about Jenny’s history it’s pretty easy to figure out that she more than likely had contracted the AIDS virus. While it’s not exactly identified, the viewer knows it in their heart of hearts.

      • Choose the theme(s) of your novel carefully and plant them seamlessly throughout your story: While the author of the novel, Winston Groom, has stated that Forest’s story is about dignity, I like to think it’s also about respect, tolerance, unconditional love, and perseverance.  All four are universal themes that we all aspire to be/have in our lives: We aspire to earn and keep the respect of others around us, we yearn to learn tolerance of others and their choices (even if we don’t like them), we learn through our children, friends and family what unconditional love is (and through our stories we strive to teach others), and each and every day we persevere. 
        • Most themes aren’t particularly obvious as you’re watching a movie or reading a book until the very end when you sit and reflect on the life story you just witnessed. Strive for that with your writing. Strive for planting theme(s) seamlessly throughout the story that will bring the reader back time after time, that’ll get the reading groups talking, that’ll transcend sex, gender and race, and that’ll speak to every generation.

      I could go on for about another thousand words with the writing lessons we can take away from this particular movie, but instead I’ll leave you with some trivia before opening it up for comments. Be sure to come back on Friday for this week’s round-up of writing posts. Next Wednesday we’ll visit writing lessons from The Good Girl.

      • John Travolta was originally sought after to play the role of Forrest. He of course turned it down and has said that it was a huge mistake. The next person they wanted for the role was Bill Murray. But the one actor who nabbed this part was Tom Hanks who signed onto the film within an hour and a half of reading the script.
      • Kurt Russell, though not credited, provided the voice of Elvis Presley in the scene where Forrest showed his moves.
      • Mykelti Williamson (Bubba) wore an attachment during filming in order to give himself the ‘big gums’ look.
      • Dick Cavett played the 70’s version of himself in the movie (with the help of make-up, of course).
      • A sequel to the book has been published, Gump & Co., and for a while Hollywood debated on developing it but opted out shortly after the world changed with 9-11.
      • According to the research I’ve done, the author, Groom Winston, was never thanked during acceptance speeches for being the mastermind behind the character and his story.
      • Forrest Gump won a total of 29 awards – 6 of which are Oscars

      Your turn: What other writing lessons can you pull from Forrest Gump?  Have you been using these lessons all along and never thought about how they were in some way, shape, or form incorporated into this particular film? Is there a particular movie you’d like for me to post about? <—I’m definitely up for the challenge!
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