Sometimes, the best way to learn something is to see how NOT to do it. Let's look at the new Quentin Tarantino film and see what we can learn.
Before we begin, let me say that I'm big fan of Quentin Tarantino and believe him to be incredibly talented. The actors involved in the production are also some of my favorite actors and I think they all did a brilliant job. But, I felt the movie itself had some serious failings that we can learn from.
Here are eight important lessons we can take away from the Hateful Eight.
#1 CHOOSE THE RIGHT LEAD
The key to creating a successful story is to choose the right Lead. And how do we know who the Lead should be? Simple.
The Lead has the most to lose.
In the Hateful Eight, the Lead character was the bounty hunter: John "the hangman" Ruth (played by Kurt Russel). He had arrested Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and was taking her to Red Rock to be hanged.
But, what would he lose if he failed to deliver her? He'd lose a $10,000 reward.
Of course, that's a lot of money. But, so what? He's a bounty hunter. If he happened to lose the $10,000, he'd simply go out and catch another criminal and make another $10,000. No great loss.
There is another character, however, who has a lot to lose: namely, the archvillain Jody Domergue - the brother of Daisy. If he loses his sister (via hanging), he won't be able to replace her. Unlike the bounty hunter's reward, once Jody's sister is dead, he can't just go catch himself another sister.
Since Jody has the most to lose in the story, his sister is the Stakes Character.
Unfortunately, we don't even know Jody exists until 2 and a 1/2 hours into the film. And so, because there are no real stakes involved, there's little to no tension between the characters.
Had Jody been made the Lead in the story, then seeing his sister in chains, being assaulted by the bounty hunter and being threatened with death, might have mattered to the audience. Furthermore, if we'd seen Jody's love and concern for his sister, we might have actually cared about the outcome.
But, as it was, the only thing we had to look forward to was a graphic blood-bath at the end. Which was really all Quentin had to offer. It was okay for everyone to die in this story, because (without a proper Lead) no one really mattered anyway.
#2 OPPOSING GOALS
The key to creating a gripping story is to have the Lead and the Opponent competing against one another - either by trying to stop the other from achieving something, or by both trying to achieve the same thing. The question is, how do we do this? Simple.
The Lead and the Opponent Have Opposing Goals
There are two opposing goals in the Hateful Eight. The bounty hunter's goal is to deliver Daisy to be hanged. The brother's goal is to make sure Daisy is not delivered. This is a pretty classic storyline. Both the Lead and the Opponent want the same thing: namely, Daisy. It's just that one wants her dead, the other wants her alive.
While this would have made for excellent conflict, we don't even know Jody Domergue exists until nearly 2 and a 1/2 hours into the movie!
By then, the bounty hunter's dead.
So, the two opposing goals never cross. As a result, there's no real conflict.
Quentin tries to make up for this by making the bounty hunter paranoid. John Ruth thinks everyone he meets is out to steal his bounty. Of course, this only makes him look paranoid and, well... paranoid characters are rarely interesting.
Had Jody been the Lead (and we knew he was under the floorboards and knew those were his cronies up top), then we would have seen the opposing goals play out. Had we known what both characters wanted, we would've sat on the edge of our seats wondering which one would achieve their goal.
And because there was no conflict of goals, there was no tension. Which is why six out of the six people in my party fell asleep and why half the theater walked out. If we don't want that to happen in our stories, then we must make sure the Lead and the Opponent's goal are in direct conflict at every step of the story.
#3 HENCHMAN MUST HAVE CLEAR GOALS
The key to creating a comprehensible story is to make sure the henchmen (who represent the Opponent) have clear, easy-to-understand goals. And how do we show what they're goals are? Simple.
State the Henchmen's goals clearly and repeatedly.
In the Hateful Eight, we're led to believe that everyone is a villain. That everyone is out to steal John Ruth's bounty. He spends the first hour pointing his rifle at everyone, threatening them, making them disarm, etc. because he thinks they want Daisy.
Unbeknownst to him (and us), is the fact that Jody Domergue's in the basement and those are actually his cronies up top. They're supposed to steal Daisy from John Ruth.
The question is... how were they supposed to do it? I have no idea. I didn't know they were the Domergue gang. In fact, I didn't even know there was a Domergue gang until after two hours into the movie. So, I had no idea what their goals were.
And, without knowing what the henchmen want, it's impossible to care whether or not they get it.
#4 HENCHMEN MUST BE FORMIDABLE
The key to creating a robust story is to make the henchman (who represent the Opponent) as strong and fierce as the Opponent. Sometimes, they can even be stronger and fiercer, so long as the Opponent is smarter or more ruthless. But, how do we show the henchman's strength and ferocity? Simple.
Show how formidable the Henchmen are by demonstrating their strength, their tenacity and their ferocity.
In the Hateful Eight, there are three Domergue henchmen laying in wait at Minnie's Haberdashery (we'll talk about that in moment). They have killed the owner and the staff. One pretends to work for the establishment, the other two pretend to be riders from another stagecoach, also stranded in the blizzard.
Q: How do we know they're with the Domergue gang? A: We don't.
Q: How do we know they're strong and fierce? A: We don't. In fact, they're so subdued through the course of the story, they don't really come across at all.
They're just cardboard props.
In order for a story to work, the audeince must fear the Opponent. By extension, they need to fear the Opponent's Henchmen, as well, because they represent the Opponent. Unfortunately, in the Hateful Eight, we don't have any idea who the Opponent or the Henchmen are until 2 and 1/2 hours into the movie.
The underground bar scene from Inglorious Basterds (another Quentin Tarantino film) is an excellent example of how to create tension and fear.
The bar was filled with Nazi soldiers. We knew how powerful they were. We knew how well-armed they were. We knew what they were capable of. And it was that knowledge that kept us on the edge of our seats, holding our breath.
#5 SET UP AND PAYOFF
The key to creating a cohesive story is to set up what's going to happen and then pay it off later. How exactly do we do that? Simple.
Offer information early that will be needed to make sense of something later.
Sometimes, you may feel like withholding information from the reader, perhaps in order to surprise them later when you reveal the information all at once. This is not a good tactic, because 1) it fails to build expectation and 2) it feels like you pulled something out of the air. If the big reveal isn't set up, it'll feel forced.
A perfect example is the Domergue gang. At the beginning of the film, we have no idea they exist. We don't know that Daisy is part of a larger organization. For all we know, she was a lone criminal, acting on her own, without any help from anyone.
But, this information would have been crucial to both cohesion and tension.
Had we known she was part of a gang, we would've understood and appreciated the bounty hunter's paranoia. In fact, we might've participated in it, because we would've known there was someone out there, wanting to get her back. Was it one of those nefarious characters at the Haberdashery? Or was he just being paranoid, killing people for no reason? That would've been the question, had we known they existed.
Knowing there was a prospect of rescue would have added to the mystery and suspense. But, since we didn't know... we were left with the feeling of, "When is the story going to start?" "Who's the bad guy?" "Why do we care?"
There was a perfect set-up opportunity in the Hateful Eight that I felt was missed. When the stagecoach comes upon Major Marquis Warren, sitting in the middle of the road, he is sitting on three corpses.
How wonderful it would have been if these men had been a part of the Domergue gang - dispatched by the major when he caught them waiting by the road.
This would have 1) set up the gang and 2) established a paranoia that the Major might want to steal Daisy from the bounty hunter. It would have also been a great device for when the coach arrived at the Haberdashery and the other gang members see the three dead bodies.
Anton Chekhov wisely said, "If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third." He used the analogy of the gun because it's unusual. And, so are three corpses. If there are three corpses in the opening scene, they darn well better mean something!!!
But, they don't. They were nothing more than cardboard props.
#6 SET THE STAGE
The key to creating a believable story is to "set the stage" with the necessary information we need to understand and appreciate what's really going on. How do we do that? Simple.
Tell us what we need to know to understand the characters and the setting.
For example: Daisy Domergue had a $10,000 bounty on her head, dead or alive. I don't need to tell you how much money that was in the 1870s. It was a LOT. Which means she must've done something mighty bad to deserve such a high price.
Any idea what she might've done to warrant a $10,000 bounty? We'll never know, because we were never told.
Had we known what she'd done (even if it was only hinted at), it would've added to her mystique. To her danger. But, as it was, we knew nothing about her. She was nothing more than a cardboard prop.
The film also failed to set-up Major Warren's familiarity with Minnie's Haberdashery. There was nothing in the dialogue to insinuate that he'd ever been there or knew anyone from there. Until he arrived, that is, and (suddenly) he knew everything there was to know about the Haberdashery and its owners.
Except that he didn't know who the "new guy" was.
Because the film failed to set this up, his familiarity of Minnie's Haberdashery came across as "forced."
#7 DO YOUR RESEARCH and USE SIMPLE TERMS
The key to creating a credible story is to make sure you use terms correctly and that you use the most simple term available. How do we do that? Simple.
Make sure you research your story before you begin, so that the audience will trust you as a storyteller and believe what you're telling them - even if they know it's fiction.
For example, in the opening of the film, the stagecoach is on its way to Red Rock, where John "the hangman" Ruth intends to turn Daisy Domergue in for the bounty. But, on the way, they stop at Minnie's Haberdashery. What's so bad about that?
A Haberdashery is a place where they sell men's clothing, such as shirts, ties, gloves, socks and hats. If you watch the film, though, you'll notice there isn't a stitch of clothing for sale anywhere in Minnie's establishment.
In reality, there were two types of coach stops in the 1870s: "swing" and "home" stations. The Home Stations were typically run by a family and provided coffee, meals and sometimes a bed. They also included stables. Minnie's Haberdashery included all these things, which meant it was a Home Station.
So, not only was it not a Haberdashery, the word Haberdashery itself is too convoluted for normal movie-goers. How many people in the theater knew what a Habidashery was? Probably one. That was me. And I would've rather Quentin used a simpler, more familiar term... like Way Station.
While this might not seem like a big deal, mistakes such as these make a writer look sloppy. So, take a few extra minutes and check your details. Your reader will thank you.
The key to creating a memorable story is to add a theme. It's the simplest and surest way to make a lasting and indelible impact on your audience. How do you add a theme? Simple.
Determine what the story is really about, then express that meaning in every scene, every piece of dialogue and in every action.
Theme doesn't have to be obvious or even profound.
I recently worked with a client whose theme was, "Women are stronger than they think." Knowing her theme, the author was able to write a clearer, more powerful story that held to that message. Everything in the story - from dialogue to scenes to action - everything was an expression of that theme.
Now, theme is not about preaching a message. It's about making the story the best it can be. Theme adds dimension, heart and acts as a "guidance system" for the author - in that, it helps the author know what does and doesn't belong in the story.
Of course, not every story has a theme (and certainly, most movies don't). So, if you include one in yours, you're already ahead of the game.
The Hateful Eight can teach us a lot about our own stories - where we may be falling short or what we may have missed along the way or how we should do things differently. So, next time you see a film or read a book or listen to a story, pay close attention. You may be surprised by what you learn.