Discover more from Writing Without Rules: Deep Dives
‘Fall’ and Seeing the Grinder
Seeding your story with clues to set up twists is a good idea. But you need to be subtle about it.
NEW STANDARD DISCLAIMER: This newsletter aggressively spoils things.
One of the great things about this Substack is how it gives me an excuse to watch every mediocre movie in the world. After all, dozens of people are breathlessly awaiting my brilliance every week! To be clear, I have never possessed what you might call “taste” when it comes to watching movies; Jebus, I once saw Who’s Harry Crumb? in the *theater*. I paid to see that. I mean, I was a callow young child at the time and not the sophisticated intellectual you see before you, but still. That movie has stained my honor forever more.
All this is to excuse the fact that I watched a slab of B-movie called Fall. Hey, it was free; the modern streaming/cable/Internet matrix of entertainment options is confusing and confounding, but it means that very often any movie I am even slightly interested in is available on some platform that I am already paying for in some way. In other words, the barrier to access is super low.
Fall is a simple story: Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), her husband Dan (Mason Gooding), and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) are all extreme climbers—the sort of folks who scale nearly-vertical cliff faces with some rope and wedges. You know, crazy people. While cheerfully scaling a cliff at the beginning of the film, Dan slips and falls to his death. Months later, Becky is an alcoholic mess, and Hunter arrives to drag her to the B-67 TV Tower in California, an extremely tall structure. Hunter insists that she and Becky will climb it (Hunter will also film their adventure for her Youtube channel) as a form of therapy for Becky.
You know what happens without even seeing the movie: After they reach the top, the rusted ladder snaps off and strands them thousands of feet up, with no cell service and no way down. During the setup for all this, a series of facts are communicated to the audience:
Hunter shows Becky how to unscrew a light bulb and jam a phone charger into the socket to charge their phone
Hunter shows Becky a photo with a man’s arm around her and is super cagey about who the guy is
Becky has a flashback recalling how Dan could never say “I love you” and instead would tap 1-4-3 on her arm
The tower has a flashing light on top to warn low-flying aircraft
These details are communicated to the audience with the precise level of subtlety this bulleted list possesses. If you’re thinking each of these details becomes SUPER IMPORTANT in the second half of the film, you are absolutely correct.
Look, seeding the early parts of your story with key details that will play a role in the resolution of your plot is a pretty good idea. Bad writing introduces important details when they’re needed, giving the audience the sense that the writer is just making shit up as they go along. So it’s key to drop details in early so they feel organic and graceful later.
Okay! But, Fall drops these details in with zero grace. They might as well be preceded by a flashing sign instructing you to remember this because it will be on the midterm. Not only does this kind of undermine the whole point of seeding in these details to make them feel lived-in, it also spoils the twists the film has in store for you. When Becky sees a 1-4-3 tattoo on Hunter’s ankle, it should be a shocking moment of betrayal. Instead, because the film has awkwardly showed up Hunter being all sketchy about some dude she’s hugging on, it is the least shocking reveal ever.
Similarly, the moment you see that the tower is topped with a flashing light, if you don’t connect it to the charging trick Hunter shows Becky you are asleep. When Becky scales the final length of tower to charge the drone they have ostentatiously brought with them, it’s not a clever moment because you thought of it forty minutes ago.
What a Wonderful Night for a Therapy Session
Okay, so the film undermines its surprises by being ham-handed about establishing the props necessary for them. That’s not great, but if you’re in the mood for a dumb movie like this you can pretty quickly get over it. But the lack of patience with these details also undermines the film’s central emotional conflict: The fact that Hunter had an affair with Becky’s husband, Dan.
The Mystery Photo Man stuff kind of spoils that pretty early on, frankly, but there’s another problem stemming from the story’s lack of subtlety: The story does absolutely nothing with it.
Consider the scenario the film takes trouble to establish: Hunter had been screwing Becky’s now-dead husband, and gets caught when they’re trapped on top of a barren tower in the middle of nowhere and probably headed towards death. Drama! You can imagine that this would support all sorts of dramatic twists and turns. Will Becky push Hunter off in revenge? Was her whole relationship a lie?
Ha ha, nom, nothing like that. Hunter apologizes, Becky basically forgives her, and the betrayal doesn’t factor into the rest of the story at all. Like, at all. Which leads to the question of why it was introduced in the first place. If you’re not going to do anything with this detail in terms of story, why bother setting it up?
In the end, Fall is an example of seeing the sausage being made. The jagged edges of the story’s gears are poking through the skin of it. These details could have been buried a little deeper, with a little more care, and their effectiveness would have been amplified a hundred-fold. Instead, the filmmakers basically wheeled an enormous meat grinder onto the screen and said HERE LOOK AT US WRITING!, thus removing any tension or surprise from what could have been a perfectly mediocre story.
I enjoy watching movies like Fall because there is no way in hell I would ever voluntarily risk my life, because I don’t want my last thoughts to be “why did I do this stupid thing?”If I’m gonna die, someone’s gonna have to basically murder me, because I don’t take chances.
Next week: ‘Babylon’ and the Brad Pitt of it all.
Thanks for reading Writing Without Rules: Deep Dives! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
It’s also an excuse to drink more. I don’t expect you understand. It’s some next-level shit.
Not pay for it, mind you. But wait for it? Sure. You cheap bastards.
More recently I actually paid to see Thor: Love and Thunder.
Do any real, actual people do this? I remain unconvinced this isn’t another example of Hollywood elites trying to convince us that something is real when it cery clearly isn’t, like nerds dating prom queens or people buying houses without inheriting millions from their estranged millionaire relatives.
Giving characters Youtube channels, podcasts, and other influencer-style details is the lazy way to make a story that has nothing to do with the modern age feel like it’s part of the modern age.
Did they tell anyone their plans? WHY WOULD THEY? I mean, I tell my wife every time I go to the bathroom just in case I don’t make it back alive, but I assume other people just fuck off to the mountains to wrestle bears or something without telling anyone of their plans?
This could actually work, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
A totally normal thing. For example, I can’t bring myself to say many things and have of course evolved elaborate codes for each of these phrases, because what is language anyway?
Note to self: Write entire novel as bulleted list. I AM A GENIUS.
Whenever I am behaving super sketchily and doing bad things, I too like to have clues to my activities tattooed on my body for all to see.
Which, considering the entertainment value of this movie, might be the case. BAZINGA.
Dan, who is in the film for about thirty seconds, doesn’t seem like the sort of guy women fight over, but what do I know about women? Nothing, as The Duchess will tell you.
Would the film have been more interesting if Hunter was screwing her dead husband? Exponentially.
Also a lesson in why wearing Converse Chuck Taylors to your extreme climbing events is kind of stupid. I wore Chucks for 20 years and they are terrible shoes. But comfy.
Is HERE, LOOK AT ME WRITING! the title of my memoir? One of them, certainly.
I much prefer my final thoughts to be something along the lines of “They said no man could drink that many whiskeys, and as it turns out they were right, I salute them.”