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Summary of this month’s movie:
Joel Barish is an emotionally withdrawn man, and Clementine Kruczynski is his girlfriend who is a dysfunctional free spirit. They are inexplicably attracted to each other despite their different personalities. They do not realize it, but they are former lovers now separated after two years together. After a nasty fight, Clementine has had her memories of their relationship erased from her mind. Upon learning this, Joel is devastated and goes to the doctor to have the same procedure done. However, while unconscious, Joel has second thoughts and decides he wants to keep his memories of Clementine.
Much of the film takes place in Joel's brain as he tries to find a way to preserve his memories of Clementine, and two techies try to erase the memories. We watch their love and courtship go in reverse: The memories are slowly erased while Joel tries his best to resist the procedure and hide inside his mind.
In separate and related story arcs, the employees of the Corporation are revealed to be more than peripheral characters in scenes which further show the harm caused by the memory-altering procedure. Mary has had an affair with the married head of the company and agreed to have the affair erased from her memory when his wife discovered the relationship. Patrick becomes fixated on Clementine and uses Joel's personal mementos that he gave the company as part of the procedure in order to seduce her. These romantic entanglements turn out to have a critical effect on the main story line of the relationship between Joel and Clementine. So everything is very interconnected.
Mary ends up stealing the company's records and sends them to all of its clients. Thus Joel and Clementine both get to listen to their initial tape recordings and afterwards realize that even if everything in life isn't perfect, their relationship could still be worthwhile.
Jeni: I did not expect to like this movie, but I really really did. I have a thing about Jim Carrey because he can be so over-the-top, but because this movie is much more lowkey than say, The Grinch, I actually really enjoyed his performance. And this is exactly my kind of science fiction--it focuses on the human condition and asks questions that people have considered for a very long time, only within the context of this speculative technology. Because, really, who doesn’t have some memories they’d like to forget? It really invites the viewer to consider their own relationship to memory and how much of our personalities are formed by our experiences, both good and bad. Long time listeners know I don’t always love a flashback, but in this movie, they’re essential and handled so well because we only see how all the pieces fit together as we see all the memories and how those have created the current timeline of the film. And the side characters are fabulous. Elijah Wood is always somehow adorkable and creepy? And he definitely has that vibe in this as well. Then lastly, the blending of genres is handled so well. It’s romance and sci fi and humor but also really heartbreaking, all rolled up into one, and the pieces are woven together so intricately that you really couldn’t take one out and still have this story. So, to sum up, I loved it, even though I didn’t have high expectations going in. What did you think?
Carly: Oh I love this movie. I saw it back in high school and watched it quite a few times back then. Teenager Carly was all about Clementine and her manic pixie dream girl vibes. She’s somehow trying to combat what these girls are while at the same time holding up that ideal? I’m not conveying this well, but basically I loved her hair. Rewatching it so many years later, it really holds up. The way it is all put together is so clever. How the setting in the background slowly begins to go blank as his memories are being erased. The acting is fabulous, I love Kate Winslet. And I love Jim Carrey in more serious roles. But yeah, this really spoke to my form of angst as a teenager, but still speaks to my current form of angst. Also, Clementine’s whole wardrobe is back in style.So there’s that. So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Genre mashups! Oh wait, we’ve already done that one, dang it. No, I think what’s really remarkable about this story is that because so much of it is dependent on memory, it really creates these unreliable narrators. Unreliable narrators can be hard to do successfully because you need the reader to like and trust the narrator or it can really pull them out of the story. But when they are done well, it can create such an interesting perspective for the reader or viewer. I think a lot of that comes down to--as we often discuss--knowing and subverting the expectations of the reader. Readers expect narrators to be reliable so it always creates a little surprise when we realize they aren’t, which can be at varying times in a story with an unreliable narrator, depending on how the writer wants to use that information for tension. I’m thinking of some other films I’ve loved with unreliable narrators right now, and it’s making me want to watch all of them and talk about them here. Like, Memento is amazing. The Sixth Sense. Gone Girl, both the movie and the book. Big Fish. I could go on. It’s just such a delightful experience when you think you know something and the story takes a turn you’re not expecting and then all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen. When done well, that can really suck a reader or viewer in, and I think this movie does it really well. Truly, it’s never entirely clear what is fact and what isn’t in this.
Carly: So how are narrators reliable or unreliable? What’s the difference? It comes down to trust and neutrality. A reliable narrator can be depended on to portray the story accurately and truthfully. Whereas an unreliable narrator presents a skewed version of the story. A version that may be true to them (or not), but isn’t necessarily objectively true. As the saying goes, there are three sides to every story (or is it argument?), your version, my version, and the truth. Now what is “true” is also up for debate, because my version isn’t any less true than yours, but I’m going to steer away from that philosophical debate and try to stick to it in regards to story. Because that’s what this podcast is supposed to be about. Okay, so disregarding all that, a reliable narrator can be depended upon to relay events to the reader as accurately as possible. But an unreliable narrator can hold information back, they can skew events to make them look more favorable, they can play with reader’s expectations and assumptions. When everything that you’ve been reading is suddenly cast in a new light, with new information or a new perspective, that is how you know you’ve been reading a story from an unreliable narrator. That big reveal of information, truth, or insight is what can make for a really compelling unreliable narrator twist. Most of the time, readers are used to being able to trust the POV that they are in. They trust that the journey they are on is what happened, but when you upend that and give them new information that makes readers reevaluate all they’ve read, it can hook them in a whole new way.
Jeni: The way memories are used is the strongest tool the filmmakers had to create an unreliable narrator. Memories are all 100% subjective. My husband is a true crime junkie and watches every murder show or cult show he can find, and one things that’s always clear is that not everyone remembers events the same way. I think we’ve probably all experienced situations where we remember something very differently from the way others involved remember it. It can be a huge source of conflict in real life, and of course, that’s the best kind of conflict for stories. So the very premise of this movie draws on that concept. We see these two characters who remember things very differently, but what’s even more interesting is that it creates this whole other layer by showing us Joel watching his memories. It allows him to get a different perspective on them. I’m tempted to say that it’s more objective, but maybe it’s just a different kind of subjective? He’s still processing from a place of his own experiences, even if he sees them in a new way now. It also creates such an intimate, personal experience for the viewer. I feel like this goes beyond deep POV into something else altogether. It’s like the fourth dimension of POV or something. Like, we see Joel reflecting on his own thoughts. Normally in a deep POV, we see thoughts as they come up, and of course, there’s some reflection. But this is a whole other level. This is like some transcendental stuff right here. And because of that reflection, it invites the viewer in on several levels. We see it from our own perspectives and make judgments about who was right or wrong in any given situation. We also get to see it through Joel’s perspective as we watch him sort of grow as a person through this experience. And then of course, there’s the external element of seeing it through the techs’ perspective as well. This obsession Patrick develops with Clementine is based on these memories he sees and he’s doing just what the viewer is--seeing these events through both his own and through Joel’s perspectives at the same time. It gets very trippy and meta very fast.
Carly: I’m having an existential crisis after that. What is life? My brain hurts. Anyway! How to create an unreliable narrator. You create an unreliable narrator through filters and selective showing. Every scene you write is already selective because you’re picking moments that propel your reader through your story. But for an unreliable narrator, you need to pick moments that propel your reader through a specific viewpoint of the story. You apply filters and judgments from your unreliable narrator. How do they see the world that is skewed from what is actually happening? How do their opinions, judgments, and preconceptions alter their perspective? Do they have a history with someone that makes them view every act as malicious? Do they assume they are always in the right because they are coming from a selfish perspective and unable to see how they are harming others? Do they have a selective memory where they only remember the stuff that supports their position? Basically: decide what perspective you want your readers to have on your story, and feed them information that supports that perspective. But then comes the hard part, find information or perspectives that you’ve been withholding. Those perspectives need to show everything in a new light. Once you have those, start laying hints and small moments that cause the reader to begin questioning the narrator. In this movie, the first big moment that we begin to question what is going on is when Patrick shows up at Joel’s car and asks what he’s doing here. It’s our first hint that the relationship we’ve been seeing is not the same as the relationship from the memories. Give your reader small moments that will slowly help them put the pieces together that everything they’re reading can be called into question. And then you can either have a big reveal where we learn that everything we’ve known is actually slightly different, or you can get the reader to understand slowly that the narrator isn’t trustworthy. Think Catcher in the Rye, where we all know Holden sees the world a certain way that doesn’t necessarily fall in line with the truth. Either way, the goal is for the reader to understand that the story they’ve read is heavily skewed to the perspective of the narrator, and that they haven’t gotten the whole story.
Jeni: So, an unreliable narrator misleads the reader, intentionally or unintentionally (at least from their perspective--it should be intentional on the author’s part). As we’ve been discussing, that forces the reader or viewer to draw their own conclusions as they realize they can’t trust or believe everything the narrator shows and they need to figure things out for themselves. It’s a really deep level of engagement, but it doesn’t work for every story. Imagine if every narrator were unreliable. Readers would have even greater trust issues than we already do! As with everything in writing, I’m going to encourage you to really consider what you gain by using an unreliable narrator because you are essentially tricking the reader when you do this so it has to have a payoff for them. The best stories with unreliable narrators are the ones where the author wants the reader to have this unstable relationship to the “truth” of the story. It basically creates a multi-layered story with various levels of what that truth is and invites the reader to consider what truth actually is in life. And makes people have existential crises. Breathe, Carly, it’s gonna be okay. Mysteries use unreliable narrators a lot. Another episode we did was about Knives Out, and that’s really a fundamental part of that story--how all the characters remember things slightly differently, and the viewer isn’t sure how much of that is in their actual memory and how much is in their retelling of events to present themselves in a more positive light. I think it’s really important to note, though, that eventually the reader needs to know enough of the truth to have a clear understanding of how the main plot and conflict is resolved. Like I said before, in this movie, there are some things we never really know for sure how they happened exactly. But we get a close enough approximation that we can draw conclusions and understand how those events affect the main plot and characters.
Carly: Okay, so I’ve said this before, and I will say it again, because it is my favorite way of looking at books: every narrator is unreliable in some way because we as people are unreliable narrators. We come to every situation from our own perspective, our own baggage, our own preconceptions. Unless you have an omniscient narrator (and sometimes even then), your POV will be skewed by your narrator. Everyone perceives things differently based on their past. It is basically how I recommend authors find their character’s voice: apply filters based on their past and preconceptions that cause them to color situations differently. If you have a past with someone and you don’t like them, you’re going to interpret them asking you “how’s it going?” differently. You may interpret it as snarky or pointed because they are obviously referring to your recent breakup. But maybe in truth the other character has no idea of the breakup and is genuinely asking, trying to bridge whatever divide is between you. That is what makes all characters unreliable narrators: their perceptions are intrinsically unreliable. Like Jeni said when she was talking about crime shows. However, that being said: a typical unreliable narrator is unreliable to a greater degree. They color scenes differently, but also hold a lot back from the reader. Often there is that big reveal, but sometimes it is just knowing that the narrator is heavily skewed and opinionated. In books, whether or not a narrator is unreliable comes down to the degree to which their version of events is altered or differs from what actually happened. We as people are trained to understand that everyone has their own perspective on things. While narrators are all unreliable, they only get classified as such if they hide things from the reader or have a heavily skewed perspective.
Jeni: I want to talk a little about how point-of-view and voice play a part in all of this too. We’ve discussed the importance of these elements before, but these are really the building blocks of a narrator. They are often confused for one another, especially when it comes to a deep POV. But essentially, voice reflects a character’s personality, while point-of-view reflects how they interpret the world because of that personality. So they’re intimately related but not quite the same thing. This is super important for any narrator, but when it comes to an unreliable narrator, it has a level that reliable narrators don’t. Because your reader learns at some point that they can’t trust the narrator, it makes it that much more important for your narrator to be relatable, someone that the reader can engage with on a deep level. When you’re writing an unreliable narrator, that’s something you need to take into consideration. Just as you want to carefully control the information the narrator gives, you also want to make sure that the reader understands why this narrator isn’t straightforward, and that will be both in their actions and reactions AND in their voice and POV. In other words, we need to see it on a story level but also on a fundamental writing level. Super easy, right?
Jeni: This month our query is also a romantic genre mashup, even though that’s not technically what we’re talking about this month. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: There is a lot going on in this query. I love all of the elements but I’m missing some of the connective tissue. I’m missing the basics of the plot and the setting. I’m not sure what the main character is trying to achieve and why she is in the situation to begin with. I’d suggest practicing by writing out a very simplified plot: Who the main character is, why she is in this situation, what conflict she’ll come up against, and what is at stake. Once you have that done in very simple language, you can find ways to insert the love interest, the magic system, and the world building. But start by focusing on the journey of your main character before adding in all the catching elements and verbiage.
Jeni: There are a lot of elements here, and it makes me think you can probably pare those back some to focus more on the most fundamental aspects of the story. We’ve got an assassin, a dark mage, a necromancer, a moon patroness (I’m not even sure what that means, but it sounds seriously cool), beasts, wars … it’s a lot. And it’s kind of hard to parse out what the plot really is and what the main character is trying to accomplish because of having to try to hold all of that in my mind at one time. So I’m getting some very cool dark fantasy vibes here, but I’d like to see it all streamlined some so I can really feel hooked by the most important elements.