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Zola’s Story: A Master Lesson for the 21st Century Screenwriter

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Money, sex, kidnap, murder, Zola’s story – a neo-noir black comedy told with savvy grit – has it all and then some! You’ve probably read or heard of the story, the tale of a wild (or hell maybe regular) weekend in Florida as told by Aziah King @_zolarmoon.

Zola’s story isn’t just a great read, it’s actually a great study on how to tell a compelling story especially holding the contemporary audience-storyteller climate in consideration. I tried and successfully failed at resisting the urge to go all nerd-writer and do a structural analysis of Zola’s story, henceforth titled Florida Nights, and that’s basically what this post is.

So here I breakdown the nuts and bolts that make up Florida Nights and how they work to make the story compelling. Being such a visually vivid tale, and being a scriptwriter, I naturally assess it from the angle of a screenplay.

My focus isn’t whether the story is true or false but for the purposes of examination I treat it as a work fiction. This post is merely a structural analysis of the tale and is not in any way concerned with or a reflection of the broader (controversial?) issues surrounding the story and their implications.

If you haven’t read Zola’s story click any of these two links and read it before going any further:

Zola’s story on the Complex website.

Zola’s story on Huffington Post.

If you have read it, then let the analytic games begin! (sfx: dramatic theme music.)

THE PLOT

Florida Nights is told in such a fluid manner that I feel bad about reducing it to its key plot components, but well, necessary evils and all that. The story can be broken down to a three-act structure of sorts:

Act I

Exposition – working at a Hooters restaurant in Detroit, Zola meets Jessica, a fellow stripper. The two exchange contacts, promising to hook up on a stripping job. Jessica soon invites Zola on a trip to Florida. Cautious but enticed by the money-making prospects, Zola links up with Jessica, Jarrett (Jessica’s boyfriend) and Z (Jessica’s pimp).

Inciting incident – after failing to make any money on their first night out, Z suggests the girls go trapping (stripper slang for “sex work”) and Jessica agrees.

Act II

Rising action – Zola helps Jessica attract a high number of sex customers. Jarrett discovers Jessica went trapping and blows his top. Z humiliates Jarrett and orders him to drive Jessica to meet other customers. Jessica goes to a hotel to meet a customer and gets kidnapped.

Climax – Z goes to the hotel where Jessica was snatched. He shoots the kidnapper and makes a run for it with Jessica.

Act III

Falling action – Z sends Zola and Jarrett back to Detroit while he, his fiancé and Jessica remain in Florida to keep trapping.

Resolution – back in Detroit, Zola receives a collect call from Jessica who has ended up in a Las Vegas jail with Z. She reveals to Zola that Z is wanted for trafficking and murder. She asks Zola to help bail her out or get Jarrett to help. Zola declines, wanting nothing to do with any of them. Zola later learns Jarrett has a new girlfriend and Jessica is also in a new relationship and expecting a baby.

Now let’s look at features which contribute to Florida Nights being such a compelling story:

The set up

Probably the most popular way of setting up a plot is through a climactic plot. A climactic plot is basically the hook which is meant to keep the audience curious to the very end (e.g Will Neo become “the one”?). However, decades and decades of movies and series have seen audiences become so accustomed to climactic plots they scarcely carry any genuine weight anymore.

Movies have largely failed, or refused, to adapt to the 21st century’s audience’s familiarity with climactic plots. Thus their presentation has become so formulaic they have mostly lost the additive value of excitement and anticipation. Most hooks end up presented with mechanical drabness, as if the storytellers (studios, producers, directors, scriptwriters) are prescribing an analgesic – you know what it will do, so just take it.

Florida Nights does NOT do this. Rather than a clear cut climactic plot (e.g will Zola make it back to Detroit alive?), the story looms with a pervading sense of something. An uneasiness that suggests things are going to get ugly. But the story doesn’t define this something and never presents it, rather it lets it unravel as we meet the characters and begin to understand the interplay of character relationships.

Zola starts the story by letting us know it’s about a falling out, so we begin knowing things will go wrong. Knowing they are strippers we have a suspicion of what could go wrong, but the mastery of the telling is in not hinting at how things will erupt by putting forward the stakes. Instead Zola’s story makes us wait and watch as the pieces fall in place like a game of Tetris then fall apart like a house of cards.

We can identify the hook as “will Zola make it through the weekend”, yet Zola manipulates this hook expertly. “Bitch you got me fucked up! I’m not about to play with you ho. I’m going home!” This is the first line in which Zola suggests the climactic plot’s angle yet she immediately switches it by feeling pity for Jessica when the latter starts crying.

Essentially, Zola goes from wanting to escape the weekend to wanting to see Jessica through it and not minding making some money while hating the weekend. The climactic plot is distorted from its typical linear format and turned into a zigzag. The hook doesn’t latch unto us, it sinks into our skins. Slowly. Patiently. Disbursing sensation across our senses.

Conflict

Key to a great story is conflict; a gripping interplay of forces that drive characters such that the tale remains in a continuous eruption of fluctuating tensions. Conflict is very simply about a clash of desires. That’s all. How this clash is complicated or simplified is up to the writer.

Three prominent problems with conflict in lots of today’s movies are:

  1. The save the world factor – which is basing conflicts on overly grand scales arising from the erroneous assumption that being bigger will make more people relate to the conflict.
  2. Forcing the conflict – which is a) failing to establish a strong link between the characters and their desires, and b) failing to establish unique desires and counter-desires. Both cases lead to the use of generic or cliché clash/interplay of desires.
  • Cushioning – which is softening the degree of crises involved in the conflict (maybe the writer goes soft on his characters, maybe the producer or studio goes chicken) thus depleting the emotional and psychological impact of the story.

Florida Nights deftly avoids each of these pitfalls.

The scale of the conflict is very personal. In fact, the story never leaves the world of these particular sex workers before us. This draws us into it wholly because that’s how highly personal conflict works. We all, after all, identify with wanting something desperately, whether trivial or major.

We are never left in doubt about the value of these desires to each of them. Being sex workers they all have a common desire – getting paid, but the clash comes from what they are willing to open themselves to in pursuit of the Benjamins. Two crucial characters in this regard are Z and Jarrett.

Z, being the dominant physical presence, lords himself over everyone, forcing them into situations they may opt out of where it not for him. This factor of forcefulness is vital to the sense of danger in the conflict.

Jarrett, being the only one who isn’t a sex worker, provides a very important counter balance to Z’s bulldozing. He doesn’t need Z and he interferes with Z’s desire (Jessica). Despite his physical weakness, structurally Jarett is a very strong character. Conflict wise, he’s a crucial opposition, keeping Z’s character from running amock unchecked.

As far as cushioning goes Florida Nights pulls no punches. The tale unveils its world the way it was seen by our point of view character. Whether that is or isn’t too much is left to you.

Subtext

One thing Florida Nights does well is that it never comes off as being on the sleeve. Our point of view character, Zola, guides – and perhaps, suggests – what our feelings should be but never such that it feels like we are being told what to feel or think, or what stance to take.

We live the entire story through Zola’s eyes, and expressing her feelings towards the occurrences rather than about them allows the story’s subtext rise to the precise level it needs to be – just beneath the surface where we can see enough of it to tempt us to dive in further.

The wild adventures of the weekend stretch from the very beginning to the very end, permitting only very little time when the drama of events isn’t revolving. Structurally this is a stroke of genius. It allows the story maintain momentum without forcing the characters into a position where they reflect on the situations which would compromise the subtext.

Suspense

A major reason the suspense works is because the writer understands a crucial factor about suspense – it’s all about information. What is there to be known? Who knows it? When does it become known to other characters? When does it become known to the audience?

These four questions are the pillars of suspense. Great suspense is created from the manipulation of these four points, the more the information moves around those four questions in a non-linear manner, the more complex the suspense.

In Florida Nights, even basic information which other stories may toss aside becomes fodder for suspense. Take Z for example, for a quarter of the story we and our point of view character, Zola, don’t know his name – an uneasy feeling for a “”hulking black” stranger we just took an interstate trip with.

Then just when he is threatening to kill someone we learn his name – Z. A single letter. In that subtly blistering moment when Jessica cries, “don’t kill him Z, just kick his ass”, Z is simultaneously humanised and dehumanised. We learn his name yet more mystery is instantly thrown on it: what does Z stand for? Why just the one letter? Why that letter?

Contrast

Black comedies are tough to execute. The line between humour and darkness is very thin, and in today’s highly cause-oriented society it has become even thinner. Yet Florida Nights straddles it excellently.

The contradiction between Zola’s narration and the grim nature of the events leaves us in a restless middle point – we laugh at the situations, we laugh with Zola, yet we are appalled by the dismal happenings and at our delight towards them. This middle point is the Shangri-La of black comedy.

The contrast executed thus keeps us bouncing between distanced participation (which allows us laugh at the situations) and closer introspection (which makes us discard laughter and take a serious look at things). It’s the mirror-image technique used exquisitely and this becomes key to the story’s moral ambiguity (examined below).

A second way contrast works in the story is an adept manipulation of vulnerability. The general rule of vulnerability is: the most vulnerable person in the scene is the strongest one in it. Florida Nights applies this rule to .

The characters are stripped of their guards and laid bare. This exposure of everyone’s vulnerability creates a dynamic flow of ever-present energy. At any point in time this energy from vulnerability is surging through individual characters or the entire group. This is why it works so well as an ensemble cast.

For the audience this energy becomes a constant feeling of thrill. A feeling which doesn’t slump when the energy of one or two characters slows down, because when one character’s surge takes a breather, the surge of another rises and fills the space. And when the vulnerabilities of all characters collide (the scene where Z has sex with Jess in front of Jarrett, the scene where Z rescues Jessica, the scene where Jarrett attempts suicide) what beautifully smouldering intensity erupts.

Another intriguing aspect of vulnerability is in the relationship between the viewers and Zola the narrator. Zola’s control of the story as its narrator contrasts her lack of control in the events of it. And to be able to tell a story from the position of one who is now safe yet create a gripping sense of danger really is masterful. For the viewer that middle point is again evident – we are safe with Zola as she tells this tale yet at risk of harm as she is in it.

Moral ambiguity

“In the place where there is neither good nor evil there is a field, I will meet you there”. If this quote from Rumi was advice to writers it would read, “…I will write you there”. If you’re not interested in a didactic tale and also want to create a work that will stir group debates and personal reflections, you need to embrace moral ambiguity.

Discard notions of good and bad, forget right and wrong, toss aside black and white and allow your characters embrace the beautiful shades of morally ambiguous grey.

Two lessons from Florida Nights about moral ambiguity.

Firstly, no moral judgment is passed on any character/situation by the characters or the narrator. And if any is suggested it is weighted with a counterbalance so as to keep the scales in the ambiguous zone.  Secondly, the story’s central character relationship – Zola and Jessica – is also where the strongest moral ambiguity lies. This allows the ambiguity to seep into other characters/character relationships connected to the centre.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding moral ambiguity in the story is: does Zola abuse Jess by pimping her?

Voice

Much has been said by others about Zola’s narrative voice so I’ll just highlight two other key angles to it. One reason it works so well is because Zola genuinely sounds like she’s talking to a friend or a close knit group of friends.

The presence of this quality, more importantly than being in the style of the narration, is in the energy of it. That indescribable quality we can’t or don’t want to put into words but which resonates with us.

The second aspect of vitality to the narrative voice is how extremely personal it is. The narration is ZOLA talking to us. ZOLA. Not a stripper. Not an ex-stripper. Not a ghetto girl. Not an African-American woman. If any of these aspects are present in the voice they are present merely as that – aspects, features. But at the heart of Florida Nights is a story told not by a stereotype or an archetype but by Zola aka Aziah King aka @_zolarmoon.

Contemporary Awareness

The last thing I’ll say about Zola’s story is the reason it is a master-lesson for 21st century screenwriters.

Writing for a globally linked world which has access to over a century’s worth of cinematic content, the 21st century screenwriter (and filmmakers as a whole) is in a peculiar position. Additionally, the information age has long burst the bubble of exclusivity to the tricks of the trade.

Hence, just like a corporation announcing its quarterly reports for public scrutiny, today’s audience is or can be as aware of the traits of storytelling as the storytellers themselves. The challenge then for the storytellers is to be able to use the same tools which audiences are conversant with to entertain that very same audience.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge on the creativity of storytellers, the answer is very simple: tell your stories from your unique perspective. That perspective of you as a person. Bring to the tale that indescribable quality which can only be present if you tell it the way you know how to.

This is the summation of what Zola does in her story. The components used are not new, nor does she reinvent any but she uses them in a way no one else but Zola can.

Naturally the long-standing factory process of filmmaking frowns at the individual voice, it goes against the factory formula. Boosted by advances in the marketing industry mainstream cinema will persist with factory processed films for as long as it can. And if history will, as it almost always does, go in a circle, we will at some point revolve into a period where the individual perspective will become the thrust of mainstream stories once more.

And that’s that! And like Zola said, if you stuck with this analysis to the very end, you’re absolutely awesome!

Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA – A Study in Film Narrative

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A slapstick crude-and-cruel-taste prank-film by Johnny Knoxville and his crew of jackasses is the last place I expected to find an intriguing study in film narrative, but that was what I got from Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.

Having gorged on the five star meal that is DePalma’s Scarface for the 10, 000th time, I needed to feed my brain something less intense before submitting to the temporal death of sleep. Despite my affinity for indulging in mischief and madness I had no desire to see Bad Grandpa since it came out last year. However this seemed like the perfect condition – a no-brainer movie for a no-brainer mood. I certainly did not expect to be taken on an interesting screen-ride.

Right before the titular Grandpa sticks his penis into a soda machine (it’s Jackass, what else did you expect?) 2 of the final 3 opening credits grabbed my attention: “story by” and “screenplay by”. The suggestion that there is a story here intrigued me. A story means narrative, structure, a creative and technical way of telling. This opposed what I expected: a showing of randomly organized or loosely connected sketches much like the other Jackass movies or The Onion Movie. But if there was a story here, and if Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Her) is one of those telling it, I was surely going to pay attention.

What followed was an interesting and unique twist on film narrative. A hybrid of fiction and filmed-reality. An experiment (Inadvertently so?) in the film art of storytelling. What is it about this creation which most would shudder to call a film that makes it intriguing? First let’s look at …

Story and Structure

Bad Grandpa is a standard road-trip buddy-comedy with a simple character arc and three act structure:

Exposition: 8 year old Billy tells complete strangers in the waiting room of a law office about his crack addict mum who will soon be going to jail. In another part of town Grandpa Irving Zisman learns that Grandma has finally passed away. The sad news comes as a great delight to Grandpa, he is now free to chase tail, having not got any “nookie since the 90s”. At Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum tells Grandpa he has to take care of Billy. She abandons the kid with Grandpa Irving and bails.

Rising action: this unexpected responsibility is an obstruction in the way of Grandpa’s newfound freedom, so he arranges to pass Billy over to his father, Chuck Muski – an irresponsible computer hardware salesman (he has like 3 old computers for sale) who only wants Billy for the $600 the state will assumably pay him for being a single (unemployed) parent. Grandpa and Billy set out on the drive from Nebraska to North Carolina. What starts out as a tedious trip soon turns into a bonding adventure as Gramps and Billy revel in their shared love for pranks and juvenility.

Resolution: Grandpa reluctantly drops Billy with his father and leaves, fearing for the kid’s well-being. However he has a change of heart and returns to rescue Billy from his abusive father. The duo head over to a beauty pageant for one last prank (in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine) before throwing Grandma off a bridge – her preferred burial choice.

In total there are 23 major prank scenes, which make up the main scenes, 22 junction scenes (non-prank scenes which link the narrative) and a few minor/sub prank scenes in the spaces between. The plotting shifts from prank scene to junction scene in alternate progression. Mostly one prank scene followed by one junction scene; occasionally two or three prank scenes followed by a junction scene or two. Combining the three act structure with the prank and junction scenes gives us this:

MTV reality show

Three act structure in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

This structure blurs the line dividing reality and fiction, delivering an unexpected narrative.

Constructed Narrative/Anticipatory Narrative

All narrative in fictional films is constructed. The phrase “making a movie” aptly defines what filmmaking is – a process of building. The idea, premise, script, acting, cinematography, editing, aesthetics, style etc, are the blueprints, foundation, blocks, rods, roofings and more which are used to build a film. These features drive conscious narrative.

Bad Grandpa, however, delivers a narrative which is not defined by construction alone. On one hand it is a collection of pranks caught on camera, thus categorizing it as filmed-reality. Yet the fictional story is cohesive enough to be called a film. Prank scenes (so long as they are not staged) cannot be wholly constructed, they can only be set up then left to develop themselves based on reactions of the pranks’ targets (who become catalysts). The pranksters (actors, director etc) may aim to steer these reactions towards preset destinations or just go with the flow.

A story being a feature of the film means the prank scenes in Bad Grandpa are not independent entities but part of the narrative. Thus we expect them to ask or tell us something about the plot, characters and character relationships. Since prank scenes cannot be wholly constructed pranksters can only go into the scene with expectations. For the viewer this circumstance creates a sense of thrill, which to my surprise has strong playback value. Most importantly, the expectation arising from this circumstance creates an element vital to the telling of the story: an anticipatory narrative.

The story is therefore shaped by this dual/hybrid way of telling – a constructed/anticipatory narrative.Three features about this narrative captivated me:

Unity and Continuity

The narrative’s unity lies in the scenes where the filmed-reality and fictional story merge inseparably. The strength of this merger prevents the story from collapsing in the second act which mostly consists of pranks with very thin story value. The junction scenes provide motivational shifts from one prank scene to the next, a continuity needed for the unity to make sense. This is strongest in the first act and the beginning of the second act:

Prank scene: Grandpa learns about Grandma’s death.
Junction scene: Grandpa, happy to be free, tries but fails to get into an oriental massage parlour and a strip club.
Prank scene: horny and frustrated Grandpa decides to satiate himself by sticking his penis inside a soda machine.
Prank scene: at Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum abandons her son with Grandpa.
Junction scene: in his car Grandpa further expresses reluctance to take care of Billy. So…
Prank scene: Grandpa, Billy, and a (really sweet) guidance counselor chat with Billy’s dad and agree to drive Billy over to his father in North Carolina.
Prank scene: Grandpa tricks 2 movers into putting Grandma’s corpse inside the trunk of his car.
Junction scene: driving to North Carolina Billy asks that they stop and get something to eat.
Prank scene: while getting his meal Billy tries to play on a broken ride. Grandpa tries to test the ride but it malfunctions and sends him flying through a huge glass window.
Junction scene: back in the car an angry Grandpa decides he absolutely cannot take care of Billy. So …
Prank scene: Grandpa hides Billy inside a box and tries to send him to North Carolina by courier (the shocked attendants actually consider whether a kid can be couriered or not).
Junction scene: realizing he can’t get rid of Billy so easily Grandpa resigns himself to a long ride.

Without the junction scenes we would be watching a poorly told story progressing with missing portions that would make certain prank scenes insensible. For example, if we don’t see Grandpa failing to get into the oriental massage parlour and strip club, sticking his penis inside a soda machine would just be a random prank.

Acting

The most enjoyable thing about any prank is watching the targets react to the situation, and Bad Grandpa takes this a step further.The presence of a story turns the targets from victims of a prank into co-actors; co-actors who do not even know they are being co-actors. They are telling a story without knowing they are telling it. They are in the fictional world of Bad Grandpa yet they are not of it.

They play an important role by giving the narrative that clinical bit of unity and continuity. For example, when the two women at the courier office refuse to mail Billy to North Carolina they actually motivate Grandpa and Billy to take the road-trip, this later becomes crucial to the duo bonding.

In another scene a bystander watches in shock as Grandpa drags Grandma’s corpse into a motel room, Grandpa asks for directions to a strip club which the bystander gives. Unknowingly “acting” as a bystander the man i) makes the story of the scene effective through his shock and ii) furthers the narrative by linking it to the next scene. The narrative wouldn’t break if the bystander doesn’t give the directions, the scene could simply cut from the motel to the strip club and still make sense, but in giving directions the bystander adds that extra bit of value and detail.

The quality of comic timing and line delivery from these co-actors is impeccable and stands as a testament to the inherent hilarity of life. Replicating such natural rhythms with equal efficacy in a wholly fictional movie is a challenge which I doubt can be fully achieved.

Suspension of Disbelief

The constructed/anticipatory narrative turns conventional suspension of disbelief on its head. Suspension of disbelief is an age long agreement between storytellers and audiences: I am going to tell you a fictional story but I will make it credible; I am going to treat your fictional story as a reality unto itself. So the audience willfully ignores any data or stimuli which reminds them that this thing being watched is a lie so as to see its truths.

In prank shows or other filmed-reality productions viewers are aware they are watching reality, thus there is no disbelief to be suspended. In reality TV shows, fiction (i.e constructed narrative) is frowned upon. What the audience seeks is not an imaginative involvement but a voyeuristic one.

Bad Grandpa fuses these two worlds into one, resulting, at least for me, in a rather unique and pleasant state of perception. The viewer’s mind bounces from suspension of disbelief to awareness of reality in a topsy turvy thrill-ride. Again the junction scenes are very important here; as the prank scene asserts the reality of what you’re watching, the junction scene snatches you back into the realm of fiction. The climax delivers the strongest sensation from the fiction-reality fusion.

Set in a bar where a group of bikers known as Guardians of Children are hanging out we immediately sense the tension. What will a group of hardcore bikers who love to protect children from harm do when they realize Chuck Muski is an abusive father? The fictional story and filmed-reality flow into each other in a seamless symbiotic relationship leaving the viewer simultaneously in the pleasant spots of two separate worlds.

***

The experience of watching Bad Grandpa turned out to not be the brain cell massacre I had expected. I found myself weighing the possibilities of how else this dual/hybrid narrative can be put to use. The problem with Bad Grandpa is the juvenility of its content which makes viewers not take what I found to be a delightful technique of storytelling seriously. For me the jackassness takes nothing away from the narrative. I find myself pondering the possibilities of telling a story using this constructed/anticipatory narrative in a more intricate way. What if we could tell a detailed fictional story which uses real people and heads towards unplanned destinations?

THE TRUTH ABOUT NIGERIA’S AMALGAMATION

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If you love folktales you have to read this.

ndamofgindim's Blog

The year was 1914 but the lion did not care. The savage beast was hot on the trail of Fabong, it was drooling as it salivated at the sight of cringing muscles on its prey’s shirtless torso. The magnificent beast gave chase and covered the distance with each passing second, the end was near and Fabong could sense it. He ran and screamed till his lungs emptied all the air in them, the tropical sun scorched his skin and sweat trickled into his mouth with each scream, he couldn’t register the salty taste as all he could taste was his fear. 

 

300km away, Ndam was bored out of his skull in the forests of lokoja. He had previously struck the ground in anger with his hoe thereby creating the river Ibi. On this day for amusement, he channelled the water to what we now call River Niger. With his…

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