3 Storytelling Lessons from American Hustle

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3 Storytelling Lessons from American Hustle

As a novelist, I’m always looking to learn from the storytelling of others, no matter the medium.

For example, during a recent blizzard in the Brandywine Valley l watched All Is Lost, the cast of which consists entirely of Robert Redford. He’s on a solo sail in the South Pacific when the corner of a wayward shipping container pierces the hull of his boat.

From that moment it’s all man against nature. There are no other people involved, not even a flashback.

It’s a daring approach to moviemaking, but the movie left me flat. And the lesson I took away from that as a storyteller is that one man against the elements doesn’t make for compelling material, no matter if that man finds himself in extremis. Storytelling is about conflict, and that which provides the conflict must be another person’s will or the will within oneself. Waves on the ocean just won’t cut it.

The movie American Hustle doesn’t suffer from this problem, of course. It’s about the way in which a pair of kooky con artists and an overly ambitious FBI agent accidentally brought about the famous ABSCAM sting of several congressmen and a senator in the Seventies. It’s a good movie made almost great by excellent acting, but it’s too long.

Now, let me say that the length of any story is not really measured in time or pages; it’s measured by the intensity of the viewer’s or reader’s interest. Frances Ha (another movie I saw recently) has some cute moments but is too long, even though it clocks in at only 86 minutes. The problem isn’t the length as measured in time — hard to make a shorter “full-length” film — but that the story lacks complication.

In any case, about a third of the way through American Hustle one feels like it’s running long. By the end, it mostly rescues itself, because there’s a pretty good payoff and the acting rises to the occasion. But the lingering feeling remains of time having passed a little too slowly.

Here are the three story lessons I took away from American Hustle:

 

Don’t intrude on your own story.

Voiceover makes me squirm. While, like any tool, it has its place, too often it’s a sign of lazy storytelling. A story is the revelation of character, and character is revealed through action. If at all possible, the protagonist of a movie should share his inner thoughts not with the audience but with another character. Better is when this occurs under duress. Best of all is when it manifests not as a bit of dialog at all but as a decision to take an unanticipated action.

American Hustle opens, more or less, with twenty minutes or so (I didn’t time it) dominated by voiceover. While the admonishment to show and not tell is sometimes overplayed as a piece of advice, this is an example of what not to do.

In a novel there is no perfect analogy for the voiceover mistake that some movies make. Novels can be internal — sometimes with the most interesting action occurring inside a character’s head. The closest one can come to the voiceover mistake, I suppose, would be doing something like having a character who is not the protagonist narrate the story, only later to insert a chapter that’s written in the first person from the perspective of the protagonist.

If you don’t believe me, imagine what a disaster it would have been, when F. Scott Fitzgerald was stuck, to decide to have Jay Gatsby address the reader directly, rather than filtering the story entirely through Nick Carraway’s wide-eyed narration. This is on a par, I think, with the mistake of too much voiceover. It becomes an intrusion on the story perpetrated only for the storyteller’s convenience.

 

Start close to the end.

The majority of the American Hustle voiceover comes in the service of backstory. This compounds the voiceover error, as backstory is best meted out in the flow of the main storyline. Another script might have taken two minutes to communicate that Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser are con artists who are in love with one another. This script, it seems, takes half of an entire act to accomplish the same feat.

And, again, the reason the first act drags is not its length per se or even the voiceover. It’s because it begins to dawn on the viewer that we are not in the main story — that we are only watching the writer establish his characters.

There’s a saying among storytellers: Start as close to the end as possible. Sometimes when we begin to tell a story, we think we’re closer to the end than we are. It’s a painful self-edit to pull out those loppers and start cutting, but it pays dividends that American Hustle, for all its strength in other ways, failed to reap.

 

Milk your big reveals.

Here’s a story fact from American Hustle that should come with a spoiler alert but doesn’t: Sydney Prosser’s British accent is fake. When Richie DiMaso, the FBI agent who’s falling in love with Sydney, learns this fact, he’s devastated, because it means he can’t trust her, and there’s no reciprocal love without trust. It’s a powerful scene, well acted by both Bradley Cooper (as Richie) and Amy Adams (as Sydney).

But it’s also a missed opportunity, because the audience already knows about the accent. In fact, we learned this early on in the long and unnecessary explication of backstory. How much more powerfully would this have played out if the fake British accent was also a revelation to the audience at the moment that Richie learns it? Answer: a lot more powerfully. Because at that point we would not only be watching a character’s disappointment; we would have been feeling it in our own guts.

Will I employ the above lessons in my own storytelling? I hope so, but who knows. One thing that makes telling good stories so hard is that we get captivated by our own creativity and forget at times to ask ourselves whether we’re using every storytelling weapon to its best advantage.

If our audience is fully engaged, however, their time — or the pages — will fly. That’s the payoff we all want. And for a writer it’s the best hustle of all.

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