Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to build something so people will come

If you've never seen the film Field of Dreams, do yourself a favor: Skip this post until after you've corrected that error. Everyone else, please keep reading. Thanks!

The first line of the 1989 movie Field of Dreams is, "My father's name was John Kinsella."

Through an amazing fantasy that weaves baseball, an Iowa corn farmer, an East Coast peace activist, a Minnesota doctor and a disgraced major league ballplayer seamlessly together, filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson's adaptation of the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe makes you forget that first line.

Then, in one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed, Robinson surprises the viewer by revealing that the movie has been about John Kinsella all along. Which is why he's mentioned in the first line. When I revisited the film a few days ago, I laughed out loud at those opening words, in delighted admiration of the writing.

I've heard writing, speechifying, storytelling described as a simple process: Tell the audience what you're going to show. Show them. Then tell the audience what they've just seen. Rediscovering the opening lines of Field of Dreams reminded me of that description.

It's a little thing, but it's a detail that makes the movie one of those that rewards the repeat viewer. The first viewing is a festival of delights, and the 10th or 25th or 37th viewing is another ride on a wonderful Ferris wheel (as opposed to a roller coaster; this is an entirely different kind of carnival ride than, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

And a good lesson for the writer: Stay on message. Take your audience on a journey and delight it with the side roads and unexpected curves, but never lose sight of what your story is about. And make sure that you've left enough markers so that when it's time for the Big Reveal, the audience's reaction is "Oh, of course! I should have seen it coming," not "What the hell? I didn't see that coming."

The payoff of Field of Dreams is tremendous. It's said to be the one film that can make almost any grown man cry. "My father's name was John Kinsella" is Robinson tossing the ball up in the air and eying it with the bat in his hand. "Hey, Dad? You wanna have a catch?" is Robinson knocking a towering fly ball into the husks.

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