Last night, I watched what is arguably the best film of the year, and undoubtedly one of the best films I’ve seen in several years.
Ask Brian, and he’ll tell you how picky I am about movies, so this isn’t faint praise. I’ve had a tendency to refer writers to elements of TV shows for examples of different writing techniques, or to learn about character development, back story or plot execution. Now, I’ll be referring them to Mud.
Here are some quick things you can learn about from watching Mud:
1. The action of the story can originate in character. In reality, it should feel like the characters are acting naturally. Too often, I read works where it feels as though the characters are being forced to do something they wouldn’t really do, in order to serve the plot, because the plot isn’t evolving organically to encompass the actions of the characters. This story starts because two boys are curious. And willing to break the rules. Everything that follows feels organic, because the story follows the responses of the characters to the events unfolding.
2. Natural curiosity should be exploited. There isn’t anything unbelievable about the idea of two boys breaking a few rules to check up on a rumor about a boat in a tree. The movie flows from there, but that natural curiosity that fits with their ages contributes to other events throughout the movie, and without utilizing that natural developmental component of characters their age, the movie wouldn’t have had the same outcome. When it comes to relationships, it would feel unnatural if the boys weren’t curious. The writer has used natural curiosity to add motivation for the characters.
3. The setting should compliment the story. The story of Mud couldn’t happen just anywhere, and because the setting works to support the story, it’s almost a character in the story. Some stories aren’t location-bound, but this one is, and this is an excellent example of how the setting contributes to the evolution of the story.
4. Characters need motivation. They need a believable reason to do what they do. I don’t mean ‘believable’ in terms of factually accurate. We need to believe the actions and reactions of the character fit the character.
5. Character arcs should impact the outcome of the story. When the arcs of the characters intersect effectively, the actions of one character can prompt reactions from the other characters that will advance the plot.
6. There are usually more characters in your story than just your protagonists. When those characters are on the screen or on the page, they should be interacting in such a way that reveals character, provides obstacles to achieving the desired outcome of the story, or providing information that helps resolve issues within the story.
7. It takes a punch in the nose to grab the audience and it takes an occasional slap on the face to keep it. This doesn’t necessarily mean big action. In the case of Mud, the audience is quickly asking themselves questions. Where are they going? Why are they going there? As those questions are answered, they begin to ask more questions. How did the boat get in the tree? Then, more importantly, another question arises. Who’s living in the boat? More questions follow. Why is he living in the boat? Who is he? Is he telling the truth?
8. Coincidence can be believable, given the right variables. In this case, it’s a small, closed environment, and given the nature of the local area, the idea that most people know each other is believable. Do your job, and the connections won’t feel far-fetched, but earned.
9. If you establish the history of a character, you can connect it to your ending. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. Watch Mud. See how even a minor character like Galen fits neatly into the narrative, contributing to the revelations in the end of the movie.
10. If you know your characters and your plot, you know when to change POV. Very little of this story is told from Mud’s POV, but that contributes to the sense of doubt, curiosity and mystery surrounding him. We’re given just what we need to satisfy, when needed, and the scenes pack an extra punch because of it.
Brian tells me there’s Oscar buzz around this movie already. I don’t really know anything about that, but I think it would be tragic if it didn’t earn a nod for the writing. There’s so much more I haven’t even touched on; the use of subtext, opposing character arcs, etc. Mud is a movie that’s packed full of writing pearls, just waiting for you.
It feels odd to even try to reduce this movie into advice. The best advice I can give you is to watch it. Then watch it again, and look at the mechanics of the story development and the character arcs. I would be inclined to say that any writing student of mine who hasn’t got a few hours to watch this movie and analyze the structure of the story and character arcs isn’t serious about learning the fundamentals of craft, regardless of genre.