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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!

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TIDAL Troubles: Jay Z’s New Enterprise and the Artist-Audience Disconnect

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Stream of consciousness blog post coming in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …

Friends, Romans, Tweeters, lend me your ears!

Jay Z took to Twitter yesterday to defend his new streaming music enterprise TIDAL, an attempt to counter criticisms and what he claimed to be a heavily sponsored smear campaign labelling the venture a flop. It was a rare sight, prior to the so-called rant (didn’t seem like a rant to me) the @S_C_ account had only tweeted 215 times since 2008.

Jay Z who NEVER tweets actually turning to Twitter to try and connect with people (which he – not that I mean to be cynical – may only see as connecting with the ‘market/customer’) garnered your typical internet trolling reactions, a lot of insightful opinions, and even business advice.

“TIDAL is for all” … No?

Jay Z’s tweets re-emphasised TIDAL’s selling points: it aims to empower artists, connect them directly with their fans (cutting off the middle man) and give music lovers more and better music. TIDAL is pro-artist and fan.

For now, it seems most people aren’t buying it. Among the many rebuttals three popular opinions stood out to me:

  1. At $20 per month TIDAL is too expensive.
  2. We see what TIDAL will give to the artist but we don’t see what it will give to the fans/audience.
  3. Even if I wanted to spend that amount of money, today’s mainstream music isn’t worth it.

These opinion reflect a deep disconnect in the relationship between artist and audience, which, in my opinion, has been present for a long time but masked by systematic marketing.

Is it worth it? Did I put enough work in?

The artist-fan relationship is founded on a special bond. Though one (artist) delivers a service (music) in exchange for capital ($) from the consumer (audience/fan) what actually connects artist and audience is sharing the experience of art.

This shared experience is amplified by the cultural ties of a music genre to its fan base. Thus the value of country music, hip hop, punk rock etc, extends beyond just music. (This is one reason why some artists despise referring to audiences/fans as ‘customers’ or ‘the market’.)

For the most part, people don’t mind paying for music so long as in return they receive an experience they consider equal or superior in value. This return in value is extremely important because it is the pivot around which the business of show business revolves.

Though a portion of audiences have for long expressed discontent with the value of mainstream music, producers and (in some cases) artists have been able to ignore the pressure to create music with more value. Two reasons why this was possible: 1) the proliferation of free music on the internet 2) marketing developed to such a systematically efficient state that sub-par products/services (the music) could be sold successfully despite discontent from the buyers.  

Once the pressure to create great music was no longer a motivational factor for mainstream success, a disconnect was inevitable. In this light, one key problem facing TIDAL is that it is trying to cash in on an artist-audience connection which no longer exists.

Devaluation

Take rap music for example, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s rap music wasn’t just music, it was a movement, a voice for a generation. The heavily ideological music of rappers like Tupac and Nas were an affirmation of the African American identity. Even the ‘I’m flossing like a boss’ music of rappers like Jay Z and P.Diddy were essential parts of the movement – they affirmed financial success as part of an African American’s identity.

However, the music, in its mainstream form, did not keep up with the shift in priorities of the audience. The music stopped listening to its fans. The audience’s value-needs expanded but the music stayed narrow. And when it realised it could still make money without listening to its fans, it happily jumped into that pool. (This circumstance is not unique to rap, it has manifested in rock, R & B and, yes, even pop music.)

While this circumstance offered short-mid term gains for artists and producers, it always threatened to backfire in the long-run. People have spent so long asking the music to care about them but it couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Today we have TIDAL asking people to care about it but they can’t give a rat’s ass.

Show me the money movement!

Consider the refusal to identify with TIDAL in comparison to the cult-like followership with which people received enterprises like Wu Tang’s WU WEAR or Jay Z’s ROCAWEAR. In those cases people weren’t just buying into a brand, they were participating in a movement. More importantly, they felt they were contributing to a vision.

I reiterate: the business of show-business revolves around a healthy artist-audience relationship. When selling any piece of performance art (music, film, theatre etc) the superior producer aspires to create an artistic experience which transcends the financial cost of that art.

If after listening to that album or watching that film or play, the fan/audience is still ruminating on how much was spent then the producer and artist are doing something wrong. The least aspiration is to have the audience feeling it cost a little too much but it was still worth it. The highest aspiration is to have the audience feeling it underpaid for the art.

The greatest respect a person in show business can show an audience is return artistic value for their financial loyalty. Sadly, there’s not much respect for the fans in mainstream music and honestly even the fans show a lack of self-respect. This is one reason why Jay Z, an artist renowned for his skill in business is, at least for now, being disrespected for his business.

I for Indie

Is TIDAL doomed? I don’t know. Personally, I hope not. The music industry definitely needs a structural revolution. Even if its present format fails, I hope and trust Jay not-a-business-man-but-a-business-man Z will return to base and resurface stronger.

People do want to support platforms like TIDAL it just has to offer something to the people. And so does the music. Believe it or not some people take pride buying their music rather than downloading it. But when the system seems to be exploiting them, well, torrent sites are only a click away, no?

TIDAL needs to be pushed by the RIGHT FACES and super-star-rich Jay Z, Madonna, Beyonce ARE NOT THOSE FACES. Surprise-surprise but people don’t identify with mill(bill)ionaires asking for more money. Surprise-surprise but upcoming artists aren’t excited about bigger artists eating out of their pie.

I think, as do others, that TIDAL needs to have independent artists more at the forefront. I can’t figure out if Jack White, Jason Aldean and Arcade Fire are suitable or if they’ve been tainted by being part of the TIDAL 16. What independent artists would bring to the face of TIDAL is relatability; they’d bridge the disconnect in the artist-audience relationship.

To the audience their involvement would mean/suggest TIDAL does truly have benefits for indie acts. The impact of seeing indie artists being (sort of) backed by a Jay Z, Madonna or Jack White would also help break down barriers from the artist-audience disconnect.

Another advantage indie artists would bring is using the right language in trying to get people to connect with TIDAL. From day one Jay Z’s language has been wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It sounds like bullet points from a business proposal. Even reading about TIDAL is a bore. Nothing to get one excited about having better access to music. It’s all money, percentages, shares, subscriptions … egh! It should be about the love of music, the shared experience of art.

And just to reiterate, the artist-audience disconnect means that the super-star-rich likes of Jay Z and Madonna are not the right people to be talking about sharing the love of music (for $20 per month).

Niggas in Paris, Cousins in Nigeria

A quick word must be said on Jay Z’s comment about his ‘cousin moving to Nigeria to discover new talent. First off, his cousin moved to LAGOS, not Nigeria. Don’t get the wrong idea now, Lagos is in Nigeria (No, CNN it’s not the capital, and neither is Nairobi) but that cousin is highly unlikely to have any impact beyond specific vicinities within Lagos. Heck, beyond specific offices.

Secondly, that cousin is highly unlikely to discover any new talent. And no, not because there is no new talent but like any industry, those at the top will place a stranglehold on the cousin going beyond them – if said cousin even intended to search beyond them in the first place.

Indie artists in Nigeria are likely to gain nothing from the presence of Jay Z’s cousin, while a few already at the top will be presented to the global market as new talent. Indeed, to the global market they are new talent but it would be a deception to present rich Nigerian superstars as TIDAL’s contribution to Nigerian music.

Vulnerability: the art of empowerment

My final thought on TIDAL is this: I do believe Jay Z would put TIDAL in a better position to gain more patronage if he made himself vulnerable. Jigga maybe needs to just put himself out there, financially, reputably  – sometimes the safe card is your enemy.

If Jay Z set TIDAL up in a way that he (and all/some of the TIDAL 16) are taking some sort of pain or loss in order for new artists and music lovers to have a better artist-fan relationship (which actually means more patronage for TIDAL) people would be more willing to back the enterprise with massive support.

Vulnerability is a reverse way of being in control. It’s an art no other artist knows better than actors. In order to gain control of the audience, the actor makes him/herself vulnerable by opening up completely. This forces the audience into an emotional and psychological corner from which they capitulate by giving themselves over completely.

The rule of thumb is: all things being equal, if two actors are in a scene and one is naked, that is the one who is in control because he/she is more vulnerable. However, that’s not to say I’m suggesting Jay Z should get naked on TIDAL, especially not when Alicia ‘Aphrodite’ Keys is in the building.

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