Brokeback Mountain: Defining the Characters

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Brokeback Mountain on the New Yorker website

Anne’s Foolscap and Spreadsheet

Anne Hawley is the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. She’s a Story Grid Certified Editor specializing in literary and historical fiction, and is the producer of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.


[0:00:00.5] AH: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. My name is Anne Hawley and I’m an experienced novelist trying to ground my craft more solidly in Story Grid methodology. I’ve agreed to be the lab rat in the masterwork experiment, which Shawn Coyne is conducting as a test of his latest writing and editing methods.

Shawn is the creator of the Story Grid method, the author of the book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, and an editor with many years’ experience in the big New York publishing houses. In the masterwork experiment, Shawn and I analyzed the brilliant short novella Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, with an eye to understanding what it’s made of right down to the beat level.

Then my job will be to write a novella of my own using exactly the same beats and structures, but with a different setting, style and voice. To be specific, the setting will be Regency, England. Last week, we reviewed the editor six core questions and used the answers to them to fill in the global foolscap worksheet, which is a one-page analysis of the whole story.

In today’s episode, I talk about the protagonists I have in mind for my own story, who will somehow have to be Regency England analogs of the two Wyoming cowboy lovers in Brokeback Mountain. Our discussion takes us into some political territory about representation. I fight pretty hard against the requirement to match Annie Proulx’s tragic ending. That conversation probably isn’t over yet.

Put on your white coat and safety goggles and step into the laboratory for episode 3 of the masterwork experiment.

[EPISODE]

[0:01:41.9] AH: Good morning, Shawn.

[0:01:43.1] SC: Good morning, Anne.

[0:01:44.8] AH: Here we are on episode 3 of our masterwork experiment. I spent the last several days working on a scene-by-scene breakdown of Brokeback Mountain. How would you like to proceed today?

[0:01:58.1] SC: Yeah, I started doing that too. Then just before we got on the call here, I was thinking about what the best approach would be to make sure as best we can that this experiment is as successful as we’d like it to be. I was thinking about just the process by which writers can help themselves through moments that they know are going to happen. Steve Pressfield always talks about resistance is the most painful at the very end of a project, or in the middle of a project. You always hit an all-is-lost moment.

One of the things that I think is a good idea when you’re planning a work is to figure out ways to know that moment is coming. Prepare yourself for the moment. Now you’re never going to be so prepared that it doesn’t happen, but at least you’ll know, you know what? I thought this was going to happen. Here it is. I’ve got some plans to help me get over it. What am I talking about?

What I’m talking about is instead of diving right in and getting into the nitty-gritty of the scene construction, what I’d to do is take some inspiration from just the global movements of Brokeback Mountain and talk to you about how you might really want to play with these things when you start to do your own work. The metaphor that I like to play with here is all the explorers who went to Antarctica, one of the first things that they did was figure out hey, if we pack some supplies and put them on our path, so a whole slew of guys would go out and send out and put these little sheds filled with provisions a hundred miles at a clip, then we’ll know as we’re progressing across Antarctica, there’s going to be little moments of relief and food there.

For a writer, when you get locked into the nitty-gritty of trying to create these small beats to scene moments, you can lose the forest for the trees. The way we’re going to provision ourselves for later on is to not worry about the details right now. Let’s think about the big global movements of what we’re trying to do here. Just to go back to our original idea, what we’d like to do is allow you, Anne, who has a deep, deep knowledge of Regency England and use that knowledge to create a story that’s parallel of sorts to Annie Proulx ‘s Brokeback Mountain.

The things that we know for sure are that our two main characters, the lovers, they live at the lower level of the social ladder. Have you thought about, Anne, how you’re going to approach creating characters at the lower levels of the Regency England social structure.

[0:05:01.8] AH: Yes. I have two characters. I have names tentatively for a time. I’ve been thinking about it. Finding period-specific names is always interesting and then finding names that are as wonderfully symbolic as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist is at a whole other challenge that I haven’t tackled yet. I picture them as two servants, one an indoor servant, like a footman who waits on the people in the house, in the big house, one an outdoor servant, like a groom, or somebody who works in the stables.

I definitely wanted to bring in the cowboy and horse element somehow. I gave one of them the knowledge of horses and the professionalism in that realm, but it’s real rough and tumble. Those people didn’t come in the house.

[0:05:47.5] SC: That’s great. Okay, so I love where this is starting. The next global challenge is the whole beginning hook takes place in an extraordinary world, an alternative universe of sorts, whereby those two characters are alone in a big frontier-like setting that will allow them to be their authentic selves, once they of course get to know each other and know that the other one isn’t a threat.

For Regency England, was there any particular chore that these two guys would have to do together? I’m assuming they’re two men that you’re using, because you could use two women, or two people who are transgender, you could play with that too. That’s also another fertile area to consider as a writer, is this male-male relationship? Is it female-female, or is it transgender-transgender?

[0:06:52.2] AH: I didn’t get very innovative on this. I assume that they’re both sis men with gay, or bisexual leanings. I haven’t really thought that through real carefully, but I have them pictured in my mind as two guys.

[0:07:04.7] SC: Okay, cool. That’s great. Let me get back to that question about was there some annual, or say semi-annual event that would require two men to be isolated away from social norms? It doesn’t have to be in the mountain.

[0:07:24.6] AH: Good thing, because England does not have a lot of mountains.

[0:07:27.0] SC: Right, exactly. Is there some windswept Moorish place?

[0:07:32.9] AH: Oh, yes.

[0:07:35.0] SC: Where they would have to go and the set up would make perfect sense? Have you thought of that yet?

[0:07:41.7] AH: Perfect sense, that’s a stretch. There are several moving parts here that I’d have to really think through. What I have thought of so far is – I mean, it’s very difficult to get these two disparate people into very different jobs out together, more than for a few hours a day type of thing. Not camping out for days and months like they do in this story.

The idea of a storm, or something forcing the groom and the footman to shelter under something for a while, I could do that during some hunting scene, where one of them is minding the horses and one of them is carrying a tray of drinks around to the gentleman, that type of thing would be possible, but I’m going to have to really do some thinking about how to get them outdoors away from people for long enough to start some affair.

[0:08:39.1] SC: Okay, cool. See, this is why I love doing this stuff because a whole bunch of stuff just came into my mind that I’ll share with you and you can forget about, or –

[0:08:50.5] AH: Shoot it down or use it.

[0:08:52.5] SC: Exactly. Blow it up. I don’t care.

[0:08:54.8] AH: All right, let’s hear it.

[0:08:55.8] SC: Okay, so one of the really fun things about this image I have of the gentleman, or gentle person in England are these notions of the big hunt. I do know and Steve Pressfield actually has a scene like this in his novel, The Profession, that there were times when gentlemen would go on a remote hunting trip. They would go to the wilds of Scotland to hunt some big game of sorts. There’s a terrific movie from years and years ago with James Mason in it called The Hunting Party. Do you remember that movie?

[0:09:38.4] AH: No, I don’t. I’ve never even heard of it. Sounds great. I love James Mason.

[0:09:41.7] SC: Yes. Oh, me too. The thing that as I recall about the movie and this was – I haven’t seen it in 40 years, but it was one of these hunting parties that had gone out and James Mason plays one of the gentlemen. One of the guys on the hunting party accidentally shoots and murders and kills one of the servants.

That’s well, what do we do about this? What does one do when one kills the help sort of thing? As I recall, it had that remains of the day sensibility about it, where it was that exact moment when the beginning of the end of the fall of the British Empire had begun. It was setting when the class, or what’s that? Howards End.

[0:10:32.0] AH: Howards End. Right, right. During the war.

[0:10:35.5] SC: Exactly. It’s this aristocracy gentleman world is starting to fray. It seems to me, and I know this isn’t Regency era, but the notion of these two serving class people being instructed, or there could be some storm as you mentioned and that absolutely works. Or maybe they send out a small party of people to scout out where are the elk running this season, that sort of thing. Because the gentleman obviously have to go and they have to bring back some big game, or they’re losers, right? What would those aristocratic people do? They would cheat in a way and they would have their servants go out and find the best hunting grounds for that annual competition of sorts.

It’s just a setup that you can throw out, or think about or whatever. Then of course, something happens, the guys are stranded, probably left for dead. Then you add a little soupçon of action here too, right? I’m getting excited. I’m picturing it in my mind already. This is why we do this, right? This is the reason why I wanted to take a step back a little bit before we dive into the drudgery of analytical reasoning and thinking and laying out prompts for you. I mean, you don’t want to feel like a computer when you’re writing.

[0:12:12.0] AH: No. The analytical part is really fun for me. That’s my problem. I get lost in the – I think this is probably true for other historical writers. You get lost in your period and you start to eliminate – well, that’s not possible. That would never happen. It didn’t work that way back then, that type of thing. It’s a real challenge to pull that open and say well, maybe this could’ve happened – could it have happened at all, not did it ever happen for sure, but is it conceivable that it happened? That’s a tough hurdle to get over for historical writers.

[0:12:44.6] SC: I think it is. If you look at somebody like E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime, he didn’t really let it stop him.

[0:12:51.9] AH: Right. No, he didn’t. He just went on and on.

[0:12:55.4] SC: Yeah. He just stretched everything. He stretched so much historical stuff. Because the characters were so believable and the reader was sympathetic and empathetic to them, it worked. Allow yourself to stretch the limits of what is historically realistic. Enjoy the process of creating the what-if. That’s the first global problem you’re going to want to move around in your mind is this whole beginning hook takes place in extraordinary world.

Then the middle is we had to categorize it. We would say both of the characters have to go back to the ordinary world, the world in which they were predetermined to live out. In the story, I think Ennis at one point says, “I can’t get out of this loop. I’m reined in.” Brilliant turn of phrase, because you know exactly what he’s talking about. “Nope, nope. This is my destiny, it’s my fate, it’s preordained. I’m the guy who has to stay and keep on track for what is expected of me.”

Then of course, because they can’t help it because they love each other, they figure out some cheat that will allow them to be able to continue to see each other every now and then, but it’s really at the limits of believability for society that they aren’t doing something “wrong.”

[0:14:38.2] AH: True. One of the historical obstacles that I’m going to have to get over is the idea that – I mean, in Brokeback Mountain, they may be lower class, but they do get to take vacations.  don’t have that option, so I’m going to have to come up with some variant on that and I don’t know what that’s going to be yet. I mean, the servant class had some – I mean, sometimes they would be given leave to go visit a dying parent or something, but it was real servitude.

[0:15:06.2] SC: Yeah, yeah. It absolutely was. Also having one of the people in house and one of the people in the stables, what’s really appealing about that is you have this gothic sensibility with the footmen in the house. He’s living in this interior world, whereas the stable guy is all external. He’s living in the natural world. Bringing them together, there has to be some – there’s some event, annual thing where the horses have to be taken somewhere. I don’t know. You’ll figure it out.

[0:15:46.8] AH: Okay. One thing about Jack that I think is really interesting is he does change class. He moves up in the world quite a bit. It’s real specific on the page, he talks about having his teeth capped and fixed. Dental work is a real class divider. I think that it wasn’t in the Regency, but that’s what she used in Brokeback Mountain to signify his change of class.

He has more freedom, he has more money, he’s the one who drives up to Wyoming every time. Getting that class difference and one of the ways that I’m thinking of doing that is to have the outdoor character, the groom character join the military, go off to war. Because Jack disappears for four years, right? I need to set it before 1815, because then that was when the war ended, but there was a good war going on before that, and a whole lot of men were involved in it. Could raise their status a little by going off to war.

[0:16:44.5] SC: That’s great. Yeah. I really like that. Again, I mean, this is the fun is seeing these abstract limitations of the masterwork you’re modeling and adapting that abstraction into something that is parallel. I think going off to war is parallel to joining the joining the rodeo.

[0:17:07.9] AH: Joining the rodeo, going off to test this. Yeah. Yeah.

[0:17:13.8] SC: Great. Okay.  Then of course, you have to think about the third wheels for each of those characters, the third party marriages, or relationships.

[0:17:27.2] AH: Right. The poor unsuspecting wives.

[0:17:29.3] SC: That’s right. What do they represent? Let’s talk about it for a second. What do you think all mud is all about?

[0:17:37.0] AH: Yeah. Well yeah, I don’t think I can use marriage in here. I’m not quite sure how to make that work. The wives, both of them, they’re obviously quite different, but they seem to represent almost collateral damage to me. There are two women who are badly hurt by marrying these guys who don’t see any other choice, right? They do what they have to do. They’re expected to marry, they don’t question it, they’re obviously able to conduct some form of marriage and get some children and that thing, but it’s not a whole and complete marriage. These women are the side effect of society’s restrictions.

[0:18:18.1] SC: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that.

[0:18:21.0] AH: Because they don’t serve as the triangle in the love-story convention of having to have a triangle. They don’t really serve that purpose.

[0:18:28.5] SC: No, they don’t. At no point do you ever think that Ennis and Jack are in love with their wives. It’s like a ticket-punching event and their relationships with women in general are from their point of view, they’re just recreational whatever. They’re almost –

[0:18:50.2] AH: Well, obligatory.

[0:18:51.3] SC: Obligatory, exactly. I do think whether or not you have your characters be married, we do need to have a sense of their relationships to women.

[0:19:04.6] AH: Right. Here’s my idea. I have an idea about this.

[0:19:07.5] SC: Okay, great. Glow.

[0:19:09.8] AH: The indoor servant who I think is going to be called Matthew, let’s call him that for now, his primary employer, the head of the household is an old woman, okay. He’s very loyal to her. He’s going to wind up – I think my idea in the moment is he’s going to wind up with a little piece of land, because of her, because she is kind to her. They have a good relationship, master-servant relationship, but a good relationship. His loyalty to her somehow is going to help cause obstruction. That’s all I’ve got so far.

[0:19:44.8] SC: That’s good.

[0:19:45.9] AH: The army could be the woman in the other guy’s case. I don’t know yet. I haven’t thought that through yet.

[0:19:51.6] SC: Yeah, I like both of it, because if we want to abstract the archetypical nature of the women in Brokeback Mountain, what you would say about Alma is that she represents what society would say Ennis, what his perfect match would be. She is salt of the earth. She’s a hard-working person. When they have trouble making ends meet, she works at the grocery store, right?

[0:20:22.5] AH: Yeah. She’s a very likable character actually. She’s real relatable, nice person.

[0:20:28.2] SC: She’s also very forgiving.

[0:20:30.5] AH: She’s also trapped.

[0:20:31.7] SC: She is trapped. She doesn’t seem to be damming Ennis for who he is, although she does call him on it.

[0:20:40.5] AH: Well, until that, yeah, that confrontation scene at Thanksgiving, where she – Jack nasty, that famous line.

[0:20:48.7] SC: Yeah, that’s true. All right, so if we were to say that Alma represents the long-term relationship that society says that Ennis should be satisfied with –

[0:21:02.1] AH: Then that’s his employer.

[0:21:03.6] SC: Yes. I think it would work to make, say the military – I know plenty of people who have made their lives in the military. Some are very happy about it and some aren’t. Once you’re a green beret, once you’re a marine, once you’re a Navy SEAL, you’re in it for life. It’s that deal. I think having the military serve as the Alma archetype for one of the characters and the grandmother to Mr. Darcy. What’s her name again?

[0:21:37.0] AH: Oh, Lady Catherine.

[0:21:37.8] SC: Yeah, yeah.

[0:21:39.9] AH: Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

[0:21:40.8] SC: Yes. Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She would be the matriarch figure in the house footmen that would be his same feminine archetype situation for him. I think you really have a really nice idea there for both of those. Another thing in the relationship between the footmen and the older matriarch, there’s that great Ishiguro’s novel, Remains of the Day, is all about that relationship. It’s about the servant and the “master.” In that the servant becomes so attached to that relationship that they’ve given up their “human agency.” They’ve turned over their ability to make their own choices to the master.

[0:22:33.2] AH: Right. Then this huge disillusionment.

[0:22:35.7] SC: Oh, yeah. That’s a great novel. That’s a wonderful thing to remember too is that let’s not just be inspired by Annie Proulx, let’s think of –

[0:22:46.7] AH: Oh, we can be inspired by Ishiguro too.

[0:22:48.0] SC: Exactly, exactly. It’s like saying, well if I could meld the Ishiguro relationship onto Regency England, with a twist of Annie Proulx.

[0:23:00.3] AH: Jack Twist.

[0:23:01.0] SC: A Jack Twist. Yeah. That’s great. The ordinary worlds that these two gentlemen live in, it seems to me you have a pretty good handle and grip on how you’re going to negotiate that. You don’t know the details yet, but it feels very ripe and with plenty of stuff to be able to mine.

[0:23:23.3] AH: I mean, my head is just as we talked about this, I feel my brain is just stretching. It’s really interesting. I’m going to think of this and maybe this and maybe that. There’s all these possibilities within these really seemingly on the surface, narrow constraints.

[0:23:38.2] SC: That’s right. The reason why I think it’s fun to do what we’re doing now before we get into the constraints is that I was talking to our mutual friend, Valerie, earlier today and we were talking about the notion. I think you’re working with her on some Story Grid stuff about scene title. When Valerie and I were talking about it, I mentioned that we were talking about on the podcast and that I’m coming down into this definition of seeing type, or beat type as there being two kinds of flavors.

The one flavor of scene type or beat type would be what I call the editor’s craftsmen’s toolbox, if you will. That’s when I say, “Anne, tell me the turning point progressive complications scene of your mineral build,” right? It’s what a plumber would ask of you, “Tell me what’s going on in the upstairs bathroom.” It’s a way of – not literally, but it’s a way of craftspeople to hone in on the problem. That’s one flavor, which are the grammar of Story Grid, which is helpful, right? Well, what’s your inciting incident? What’s the progress – those are all very helpful analytical tools that work for editors.

Now the other flavor though is the one that I call the writer’s scene type. The writer’s scene type would be something like stranger knocks at the door, or friends having coffee, or the monster attacks. These setups that invoke change in the mind of the listener are really cool, because it’s if I tell you, “Anne, whatever you do, please don’t think of pink elephants.” Now the first thing that’s in your mind is a pink elephant, right? It’s similar with these writer’s scene types and beat types. When I say to you, the monster attacks. I say, “Anne, come up with 10 different ideas using the monster attacks as your prompt.” You would be able to do that relatively quickly too. If I say to you, “Could you come up with 10 climactic scenes for me?” You would be a little hard-pressed.

[0:26:07.8] AH: Yeah. I mean, I’d have to go to 10 different movies, or novels and find 10 – it’s too broad.

[0:26:14.0] SC: Exactly. When we’re talking about scene types and beat types, the two flavors are really important and it’s important to know when to use when, where. Before we start fleshing out these beat types and scene types in Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, I thought it would be cool to start just defining the environment, defining the arena, so that you can start thinking of pink elephants before you actually need to write a pink elephant scene, right?

Anyway, that’s a very long and convoluted discussion. I think the notion of scene type and beat type does have two flavors, there’s the editors craft designation for analytical work and then there’s the writer’s prompts that the writer can’t help but start creating little scenes in their own mind.

[0:27:10.5] AH: Got you. Right. Let me ask you this, what’s the difference between that second type of thing, the author’s, the writer’s craft, beat, prompt and what we would call a trope?

[0:27:22.4] SC: Okay, that’s a great one. A lot of tropes are beats and scene types. However, there are tropes that aren’t. If we were doing a Venn diagram, scene and beat type would take half of the circle of trope. The tropes that don’t fit in to the scene in beat type writer’s Venn diagram would be things like, the whore with a heart of gold.

[0:27:48.3] AH: Oh, so clichés.

[0:27:49.6] SC: Yeah. Cliches, or the characterization tropes. That’s shorthand stereotypical trophy stuff about well, all heroes should have some fatal flaw. The really intelligent person who doesn’t know that they’re beautiful too. The librarian with the glasses.

[0:28:16.8] AH: With the bun and the glasses. Yeah.

[0:28:18.4] SC: Yeah. That ridiculous – Yeah, they are cliché, but clichés work. I wouldn’t call those tropes scene types or beat types, because they’re just a cheesy, tricky things that can get you in a lot of trouble if you’re really taking them too seriously.

[0:28:36.5] AH: What are the things that I picture about the artists’ beat or the authors’ beat type, or prompter, or whatever we end up finally calling them, is reaching into a jar of Lego blocks or something, pulling one out and looking at, reading. Like a card, pulling a – pick a card, any card, right? Read what’s on the card and then get inspired.

[0:28:59.1] SC: Yeah. What I think we’re talking about are what I’ve called pheres. What pheres are are these metaphysical units of change. For example, if I walk down the street and somebody throws a banana peel in front of me and I step on it and fall, banana peel is a unit of change that causes an event to happen. It’s an unexpected event that causes the attention to come upon it and changes the progress of a character on a goal-directed path.

When I start throwing out these beat types and monster attacks, what is that at its core, but it’s a unit of change? When I say monster attacks, our brains automatically start creating these little mini-dramas in our heads because the phere unit, it’s like a virus. It hits the right side of our brain and we start fabricating these little stories. That is what I see when you say the little card, when you read the card, it induces these little mini-dramas to start playing in your mind.

[0:30:23.1] AH: Right, right. Okay. 

[0:30:26.1] SC: They’re great tools, because they’re extremely specific. Whereas, give me an inciting incident scene isn’t so specific. The reason why we want to create this grammar is the day will come hopefully when Anne, the Story Grid editor has a conversation with Valerie who’s writing something. You both are very Story Grid knowledgeable, right? Valerie says to you, “Hey Anne, I’m having trouble with my middle build.” You say something like, “Well, tell me what your middle build, turning point, progressive complication scene is.”

She goes, “Well, right now it’s monster attacks, but I’m thinking I should – I’m considering making it more like stranger knocks at the door.” You’ll go, “Oh, I see what you mean.” Then you can start hashing out different scenarios between the two of you. Instead of a 45-minute conversation about what the beginning of her story is, the middle is and the end, you can get right to the crux of the problem and start tossing back and forth different possible solutions to the problem. Between the two of you, you could be like, “Well, I don’t know if that works. What about this no? No. I like that part, but let’s change that to that.” That way, it’s a great tool for the editor and the writer to have their own special secret language that will effectively solve the problems that the writer is facing in that moment.

[0:32:08.1] AH: Got it.

[0:32:08.7] SC: That’s the point of it. It’s not just some silly theory that Shawn came up with that we can all analyze to death. It actually has practical applications, sooner rather than later, I think. I think what we’re doing now is actually doing that process on the fly.

All right, so let’s get back to what the global ending payoff abstract notion is with Brokeback Mountain. Now the ending payoff is interesting, to say at the very least. The Ennis character, whichever character you choose to have that role in your story, learns of the death of their beloved. Then the rest that ensues is about that single character metabolizing that information in such a way that the love that the two of them shared sustains that person for the rest of their life, as opposed to destroys them. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that Anna Proulx did there, to make a tragic event the death of a loved one, actually transform from the information that can cause someone to lose all faith and hope in existence, to actually a sustaining force that keeps them carrying on.

If we look at the ending payoff of Brokeback Mountain in that way, I’m wondering if you’ve given thought to how one of these characters is going to embrace the authentic love that they had for the other one in their death in such a way that it doesn’t cause them such existential grief that they kill themselves. It’s a tall order of course.

[0:34:08.0] AH: It is and I’m fighting it pretty hard, because I really don’t want to use that same ending.

[0:34:14.3] SC: Oh, no.

[0:34:14.7] AH: I know you already told me what tough luck you have too. I’m really fighting it.

[0:34:19.9] SC: Well, okay. Let’s just sit with that for a minute. Whenever I find myself extremely resistant to a particular intellectual concept, the first thing I do is really, really dig in my heels and say, “There’s no goddamn way I’m ever going to do that, or think about that in that way.”

Then the next thing I do is try and unpack it a little bit, because if we can unpack your resistance a little bit, we might learn something that will be immeasurably helpful in the writing. Just for fun and don’t feel like I’m attacking you or being negative in any way, I want to hear – just walk through with me why you’re resistant to that ending.

[0:35:11.4] SC: Well, a couple reasons. One of them is just emotional. I’d rather have a happy ending than a sad ending, even though it’s very cathartic and I get that. I feel strongly about just not leaving the reader just melting in a pool of tears, maybe a few tears. There’s another more intellectual level reason that I’m concerned with and that is this in the gay community, my gay friends have all said, please, there’s a trope of kill your gays that has been out there when gay people have been represented in let’s say in the last 20 years or so in popular media.

Typically, they’re represented as almost a red shirt in Star Trek. They’re just someone who’s introduced, “Oh, look. You have your representation. This is a gay person,” and then they die. One way or another, we kill the gays and the lesbians and it’s very, very common. I have promised a couple of my gay friends that I would not kill my gays. That’s one of the reasons that I would not like to kill the character.

[0:36:12.9] SC: Okay. Well –

[0:36:15.7] AH: Deal with that Shawn.

[0:36:17.5] SC: Okay. I’ll absolutely deal with that. I don’t have a problem dealing with that. I absolutely agree that that trope is one that is – I can think of it just off the top of my mind in at least four or five instances. The first one that came to mind was the madman character. That’s legitimate. However, I’ll just say it, this is an experiment. I think sometimes when you’re an artist, it’s difficult to break out of your ideological belief system in favor of making an artistic choice.

I don’t believe that Brokeback Mountain perpetuates a negative myth about gay people. The reason being that she didn’t kill both of the gay guys. What she did instead, was create a story so powerful that a man like my father who was misogynistic, homophobic, racist to his core, could go and watch that movie and then go read the book and completely change the way he saw gay people.

[0:37:40.5] AH: Yes. Powerful that way.

[0:37:42.6] SC: That’s how good it was. If we’re going to say, what Annie Proulx did was a remarkable achievement worthy of emulation, worthy of respect and using as a model, I think that’s where we have to put our feet down. I think your friends will forgive you.

[0:38:08.9] AH: Well, I’m sure they will because they’re my friends and this is just an experiment.

[0:38:13.2] SC: I think what you’re going to end up creating will be something that they will say, “Oh, sorry. We know not of what we spoke.” Now if they don’t, that’s okay too, but that is the burden of being an artist, sometimes embracing uncomfortable ideas, it’s almost like you have to say to yourself, “Because I don’t want to do that, I should do that.” A lot of people, a lot of writers that I know won’t read certain kinds of books or stories, because it upsets them too much. I can certainly understand that.

[0:38:56.1] AH: Yeah, that’s fair.

[0:38:58.3] SC: However, I do think that you need to stretch yourself. One way to stretch yourself is to say to yourself, “You know what? I’m just going to follow the prompts. However it shakes out, it’s going to shake out. I don’t have to publish it. I don’t have to share it with anyone, but I’m going to just follow the process and see what shakes out.” I do think the experiment that we set out to do does require you to do something that you’re uncomfortable doing.

[0:39:33.2] AH: I’m just sitting here going, “Oh, I don’t want to do it.”

[0:39:36.6] SC: Well, I think if you do do it, you won’t regret it. If you do regret it, you don’t have to publish it.

[0:39:43.4] AH: Well, I signed up for this, so I will of course do my best to do it. All the time in the back of my mind, I’m writing a separate story that’s going to have a different ending.

[0:39:52.3] SC: That’s fine. That’s fine. What we need to do is to have one of these people die and try and move away from the specificity of their sexual orientation. Let’s not think about them as either gay, or straight, or trans, or whatever the hell they are, and think about them as human beings. I mean, the question she really nailed here that is a human being question and has nothing to do with sexual orientation is what do we do when we don’t have the courage to admit that we love someone and we lose them? How are we going to live with that? That’s what Ennis has to live with. How is he going to create a life out of a real mark of, for lack of a better word, cowardice?

[0:40:43.5] AH: Would you say that – I think one of the most powerful things in Brokeback Mountain is the fact that Jack – it’s a little bit ambiguous, but fairly well confirmed by the end of the story that Jack is killed in a hate crime, in a homophobic crime of violence. That that’s a very important part of the story, but the story was written in the 90s. I don’t know that we need, like you say, their sexuality to be involved in why one of them dies. However if it isn’t, then what are we doing here?

[0:41:15.8] SC: No. I’m not saying that their sexuality doesn’t involve the cause of their death. I’m saying yes, that’s a limitation that we’ve set from the start. My point is that the specificity of the crime that causes the death leads to a greater exploration of the universality of loss. I’m not saying that we change the cause of death, because the cause yes, it was definitely a hate crime and there has to be a hate crime in your story that causes the death of the character, I believe, if we’re going to follow Brokeback Mountain.

My point at the very end about your concern about the political ramifications of killing off a gay character in a story, I don’t share because I don’t think – I think at the end of this story, it’s so clear that these two human beings were in love with each other and that one did everything possible to get the other one to accept their true love together, that they finally had to give up and then they got killed because of their sexual orientation. Yes. The real point of the story is how does one live with loss? What Ennis does is he builds a temple to the love that he shared with Jack, and so that becomes the warmth and the joy and the remembrance of that love, that true love he was able to experience, even fleetingly, that’s enough for him to get through difficult days.

When I say by the end of the story, the sexual orientation of the two characters, for lack of a better word, it exalts above that. It raises a level of abstraction that these are two human beings and it was so powerful that it could change the minds of lots and lots and lots of people who experience the story. The fact that one of them dies, one of them lives. I don’t know where I’m going with this, other than I really think it’s important that you do.

[0:43:44.1] AH: Okay. Well, one thing in Brokeback Mountain is that the reason, it’s very, very subtextual, but the reason that Jack is suspected, caught and killed is that he’s been fooling around with various different men, right? He has not been “faithful” to Ennis. Whereas, Ennis doesn’t seem to – seems to be on the page. He doesn’t have that same urge.

[0:44:06.1] SC: That’s right.

[0:44:07.6] AH: He is more contained, more controlled, less sexually driven. I don’t know what you’d say, but that seems to be there in his character. He stays safe by not living “as fully” as Jack does. Jack dies, because he was – if you want to look at it that way, living more fully.

[0:44:27.9] SC: Well, yeah. That’s why it’s a historical setting too.

[0:44:33.0] AH: True, true.

[0:44:33.9] SC: I would absolutely agree about that characterization of both Ennis throughout the story keeps reminding Jack about the tire iron.

[0:44:41.6] AH: The spoon and the can of beans and the tire iron being the same symbol. Yeah, it’s very powerful.

[0:44:46.6] SC: It’s very powerful and this is like, “Look, dude. I’ve seen it. In fact, I think my father was the one who killed these gay guys. I don’t want to die bro. God bless you, but I just can’t do it. I don’t want to die that way.” I think Ennis obviously had the same desires as Jack did, but yeah, he squelched them. What’s wonderful is that the only thing that keeps him alive in the end was his true love.

[0:45:18.6] AH: Yeah. I mean, his fidelity.

[0:45:22.2] SC: Yeah. Anyway, this is all food for thought for you. I’m really glad we had this global abstract conversation, because my gut is that you’re going to walk away after this episode and really start – wanting to start banging out a bunch of scenes. Well, I not tell you not to do that, it probably would be better if the next episode we’ll start going through scene by scene, maybe we’ll probably be able to cover the beginning hook in the next episode. Then probably, you can start working after that. That’s all I have I think for this week.

[0:46:05.1] AH: Well, I’m going to go ahead and take a snapshot of the spreadsheet that I have so far, because I think there’s a lot of gaps in it, and we’ll post that. Then next week after we start going through the scene-by-scene, I’ll post corrections to it. How does that sound?

[0:46:18.2] SC: That sounds great. Yeah.

[0:46:19.5] AH: Okay, because I’ve got a lot of blanks, question marks and really stupid ideas in here, but I might as well let the world know how stupid it was, because I’m willing to be stupid in public once in a while. I will do that.

[0:46:32.7] SC: Yeah. You got to. You got to. There’s no getting around it.

[0:46:35.3] AH: For next week, I have already broken out these scenes about as fully as I can. Do you have an additional assignment for me?

[0:46:43.5] SC: Well, I’ve done probably the first third and I’ve broken it down to beats.

[0:46:48.5] AH: Okay, I’ll start on beats then.

[0:46:50.7] SC: Yeah. My advice about beats is take it very slowly, because I’m speaking for myself. Oftentimes, I’ll start to want to jam them altogether. If you go slowly, you can really delineate the conscious choices that the writer was making from moment-to-moment. It’s really a useful exercise because it shows you getting from A to B to C to D. I did take a quick look at your scenes and they are generally – we’re in compliance. Meaning, mine are mapping it the same way yours are. I do have a higher resolution of focus with beats.

Just think about starting from the beginning, maybe taking a couple of pages, two pages, three pages and seeing, “What? Is this a beat? Yeah, I think it is. Okay, I’m going to just put it there. Is this a beat? Yeah, maybe a little bit more. Oh, there it is.” Just trust your implicit knowledge and I think we’ll probably come in at the same place on the beats too.

[0:47:58.7] AH: Just to clarify a little bit, when you say I’m reading through line-by-line, word-by-word, how do I know? I mean, my feeling is something – some little thing changes, something changes hands, or so to speak. Is that about it?

[0:48:17.2] SC: It’s basically a unit of change.

[0:48:18.9] AH: A unit of change. When you get those long – there are long transition scenes. I think of them as transition scenes where there’s a long drawn-out description of something where nothing really changes. She’s just setting the scene. That’s like what you’d call a transitional beat, the whole thing.

[0:48:34.2] SC: Yeah, unless it’s clearly an expositional passage, that really doesn’t go anywhere. It just moves from the previous to the next. I don’t really break those out. If they’re within the scene, I’m thinking of the moments when Joe Aguirre spots them from afar. Once he does, that’s the change unit. It moves from undiscovered to discovered. They’re now vulnerable. There’s probably a good 50, or a 100 words prior to that that was really describing the quotidian moments of they would have sex in the morning, they would have sex in the afternoon, right?

[0:49:17.9] AH: Basically, that’s what they did up there.

[0:49:19.8] SC: Yeah, exactly. I would not break out that expositional stuff. You know what? The proof is in the pudding, we just have to compare notes. Trust yourself.

[0:49:28.3] AH: All right, well –

[0:49:29.1] SC: You’re super smart. I’ve never seen you make a mistake.

[0:49:33.4] AH: Well, my thinking is there should be – by the time I’m done with this beat analysis, there shouldn’t be any lines in the text that I haven’t covered somehow. It’s all either bricks or mortar. I need to identify the mortar and the bricks.

[0:49:46.6] SC: Pretty much.

[0:49:47.0] AH: The little bricks and the big bricks. I mean, I’m groping for a metaphor here, but –

[0:49:51.0] SC: No, that’s a pretty good one. I’d agree.

[0:49:54.2] AH: Okay. All right. Well, I will get on that then. That’s a week’s worth of work for sure. We’ll reconvene next week and start on the beginning hook.

[0:50:02.7] SC: Sounds good.

[0:50:03.7] AH: All right, thanks Shawn.

[0:50:04.9] SC: Thank you.

[END OF EPISODE]

[0:50:06.1] AH: Well, that’s a wrap for episode 3 of the masterwork experiment. You’ll find links to my foolscap page and my scene spreadsheet in progress in the show notes. We’ve also included a link to the New Yorker edition of Brokeback Mountain and we hope you’ll read it and follow along, because it is a brilliant piece of writing.

For everything Story Grid related, visit storygrid.com and be sure to pick up a copy of the book, The Story Grid. Also, sign up for the newsletter to get a weekly notice of all the wonderful things that we are constantly working on in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work, you’ll find me at annehawley.net, where I’m writing about the process of working with Shawn and writing a story to specifications set by someone else.

I’ll be posting scenes there too once I start writing them, so check that out on my blog. You can also join me on the editor roundtable podcast where I team up with four other Story Grid certified editors to analyze the structure of a movie, or a novel every week. To support the show, tell other authors about us or leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It really does help new listeners find us. Join us again next week when Shawn and I begin our beat by beat analysis of Brokeback Mountain.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

[END]

About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers.
Comments (11)
Author Valerie Francis

11 Comments

Annamarie Muirhead says:

Wow that sounds crazy exciting I can hardly wait till next week, but will find all the suggested material, by Shawn.

Reply
ANNE HAWLEY says:

Hi Annamarie! Sorry I didn’t get to your comment sooner. I hope you enjoy the experiment.

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Stefan says:

What if the two guys have to take care of a summer castle in Scotland during the winter? One takes care of the stables and horses and one of the buildings.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

I’m heading down an analogous path, Stefan. The indoor servant and outdoor servant dichotomy–which was simple inspiration–gives rise to several possibilities like the one you mention. Scotland is farther than almost anyone would have gone seasonally in those days, but there are other possibilities closer to the Hampshire setting I’m working with. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Google Maps lately!

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Stefan says:

The underlying love story is simple: two people have an affair, go separate ways, marry, and continue their affair after a few years. Everybody can relate to that simple love story. One reason why Brokeback Mountain was so successful is that everybody can relate (subconsciously) and that creates empathy. In this case the author creates empathy as she goes along. The opposite of that was done in a movie I watched a long time ago. A back girl gets raped and the father shoots down the white rapist in the court room and is put on trial. In this case, the theme is apathy against black people. The attorneys last word in court: he describes the raped girl in detail (shows the crime) and says, “Now imagine she is white.” which creates the catharsis.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

That description is exactly the “literal action” we might write down for the story. Of course, there’s so much more to it at the “essential action” level of hidden, unstated, subtextual wants and needs, and that, I feel, is where I need to spend my energy in building out a fresh story.

With regard to the movie story you cite here, of course that catharsis is aimed at white people. I would imagine that to a black viewer, the “twist” is apparent every day of their life. I struggle with a similar problem in this project: who am I to be writing it, and who do I imagine as my target audience? Annie Proulx has as much as stated that her story was about bigotry and homophobia, more than it was a love story (which, okay, Annie, but it’s still a Love Story at its heart).

If, 25 years or so later, should I take it upon myself to write an analogous story that’s also about bigotry and homophobia? I’m not a gay man. Instead, I think Shawn’s aiming at a different interpretation: love that endures beyond death to save the life of one of the lovers.

I’m still struggling with the best approach. Meanwhile, as a side note, I’m wary of saying “everybody can relate” to any story. There are near-universals, but (in my view) no absolute universals. Personally, I can’t relate to any part at all of a simple love story of people who go their separate ways, marry, and continue their affair. So it’s up to me to find something I can relate to in it, and aim my analogous story at that.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

Thanks, Jerry. We’re finding a continuous and deep well to draw from.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

Thanks, Jerry. I’ve been at this for several years now, and I have yet to stop learning and challenging my brain. So glad you’re enjoying the Experiment.

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Katherine A Kearns says:

This is such an exciting experiment! Its so hard and I’m thrilled that you are trying it.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

Thanks, Katherine. It IS a bit hard, but I am learning so much!

Reply

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