Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lessons from Groundhog Day

So Groundhog Day is long past and spring is (kind of) here now, BUT... as anyone who has a cat probably knows, sometimes the little rats keep you up for an hour in the middle of the night. The one upside is that occasionally while lying awake and wondering how you'll ever get back to sleep, you get a random idea for a blog post.

Or is that just me?

So the other night after turning on all the lights to clean up the little terror's mess (and really, why does she think she can inhale her food and then tear around the house without getting sick?) I suddenly recalled—for no apparent reason—the movie Groundhog Day. And, in what seemed like an obvious sequence of thoughts at the time, I began to realize the ways in which the plot is a little like writing.

If there aren't any consequences, you're free to experiment

In the movie, Bill Murray's character Phil lives the same day over and over and over. Once Phil gets over being completely unnerved by this development, he realizes that he can do whatever he wants. Some of the most entertaining moments of the movie are while he's doing completely outrageous things because there are no permanent consequences.

The same thing is true for us when writing first drafts. Now I've heard that in the time of type-writers, this wasn't so much the case. But I'm firmly part of the computer generation, and there's nothing to stop me from typing as many words that will never be used as I please. A new blank page is only a click away.

So don't be afraid to try something new! Experiment with a new voice, a risky plot line or a troublesome character. At best you'll add something exciting to your work; at worst you'll have practiced something different.

A string of facts do not make a character

Eventually Phil comes to realize that what he really wants is Andie MacDowell's character Rita. So he sets about memorizing every single fact about her that he possibly can. Then with each repeated day he comes closer and closer to winning her over by pretending to be everything she's looking for. But the plan never works. Why? Because Rita isn't just a long string of memorized facts. Really knowing her doesn't mean knowing a list of things about her.

We can run into the same problem with our characters. Sometimes we might have the temptation to jot down a bunch of character traits and “favorites” (favorite color, favorite food, favorite flower) and think they fully describe a character. But in order to understand our characters more fully we need to dive deep into their needs, their desires and the mindsets that inform the ways they see the world.

Revise, revise, revise

Finally Phil discovers that his greatest personal need is to make Groundhog Day the very best day that he is capable of making it. But he doesn't succeed right away! Perfecting that one day is a loooooong process. Even once he has the outline of the day right, he still has to refine the details.

And writing is the same way for us. First drafts aren't perfect. We can only achieve our best work with focused editing.

But if Phil could do it, so can we! And maybe that's the biggest lesson from the movie: if a stuck-in-a-rut weatherman can have one perfect day, what might we accomplish?


  1. Interesting analogy. Isn't there a scene where Bill Murray steals the groundhog and drives a pickup truck into a crash or something? ... I think my first drafts are kind of like that. XD

  2. Yeah, that scene kept coming to mind. But your first drafts are allowed to be like that, because your final drafts are sooooo good.

  3. "A string of facts do not make a character"

    I can't tell you how many times I've looked at one of those "Character Bio" forms (or other such tools that really are just a form to fill in a string of facts) and recoiled away. No matter how well I know a character, I can NEVER fill those out. There's something so inorganic about them for me.

  4. I've heard a lot of people say the same thing lately. It's important to share details about our characters (and to keep track of them so we don't go changing things later), but facts aren't everything.

  5. This is great! Your thoughts about being free to experiment without consequence really ring true--what's the worst thing that can happen, after all?

  6. "The one upside is that occasionally while lying awake and wondering how you'll ever get back to sleep, you get a random idea for a blog post. Or is that just me?"

    You're definitely not alone. I can't tell you how many 3 am wake-ups have lead to either a blog post idea or some other epiphany. I might as well do something whilst lying there, right? Funny how ideas come to us at that time with such clarity, though. I guess it's because the distractions of the day haven't yet gotten in the way of creative thinking.

  7. Amie - Exactly! And, for me, related to that is the idea of never throwing away any of those experiments... because you never know when just one line will be absolutely perfect somewhere else.

    Kendra - Yeah, I thought you would find that familiar. Almost like we're meant to spend half the night lying awake in bed.

  8. This is a good analogy, and a good post. I don't think it's so much about living the perfect day, though.

    There's one line in the movie where Phil says, "I don't even like myself." It turning point comes when he decides to be honest with Rita instead of trying to manipulate her--she spends a day with him. Which is what the writer needs to do as well.

    This makes him decide to try and be the man she would love, which leads to him liking himself and trying to improve himself. Do we try to become better writer's for the sake of our characters? To tell their stories better? Maybe the analogy should stop at some point.

  9. That's a very good point. And perfection isn't truly possible. We have to be careful about *why* we're trying to improve. For recognition? Or for something more meaningful?