There was one movie last year that destroyed me. I was crushed, pierced, and annihilated after watching it. I literally could not speak, and had to shut my eyes, sobbing, until I’d released all the pent up emotion built by the story and its beautiful flawed characters.
This was not a blockbuster. This movie didn’t have big actors in it, nor did aliens descend.
The biggest event is a fire in some abandoned crappy condos, and in real life, you’d never even notice these characters, because they are invisible.
The story was so small, and so precise, that it felt HUGE.
And its lessons are valuable to anyone writing a film, novel or memoir that centers on everyday people.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT was my favorite film of 2017.
The story centers on a young girl, Moonee (6,) and her mother Halley (early 20’s) who live in a crumbling purple motel called The Magic Castle, right outside of Disney World in Orlando. Everyone in the building is barely clinging to the margins of society, including the manager Bobby, Ashley and her son Scooty, and young Jancy (6) who lives with her grandma and baby sister down the road in a similar motel called The Futureland Inn.
So how can a tiny movie like this, about a very niche group of down and out people living in crappy hotels outside of Disney World feel so emotionally gigantic? And more importantly, how can you create big emotional moments in your small story?
Here are my tips for creating big moments in your small story…
Be specific. The more specific your characters are, the more universal they will feel. Halley has various tattoos across her body, streaked purple hair and a foul mouth. She calls her best friend Ashley “bitch” and flips off the helicopters that bring VIPs to the Disney park. We don’t know her specific backstory, but we can guess. She can’t deal with authority, and her emotions drive her to beat up Ashley at one point. Her mothering is sometimes questionable, but when Moonee spits on someone’s car, she makes her clean it up. Halley is like no other human being I’ve ever seen on film.
World Build such that your “tiny” setting feels detailed and enormous and magical. The setting in THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a seedy cavalcade of pastel painted motels, ice cream parlors, and orange juice stands, all sprinkled with the gray patina of grime. As the kids traipse down the road, past these bizarre places, we feel like we’re in some weird gritty wonderland. There are cows nearby, you can hear the mosquitoes, and the theme park traffic down the main boulevard moves swiftly. Bed bug ridden mattresses are stuffed into dumpsters, and birthday parties happen in parking lots outside Disney World, where the girls and Halley can watch the fireworks show from the asphalt.
Use smaller emotional beats as turning points. Ground us right away in the scale of your narrative and these beats will feel bigger because of the size of your world and and characters.
Here are the emotional turning points in THE FLORIDA PROJECT. These beats are interspersed with lots of scenes that build relationships and motives, but notice how small they seem. (SPOILER ALERT!)
Ordinary World: We see Moonee and Scooty running around the motel. Moonee is the ringleader of the kids at the motel, and loves to explore.
Inciting incident: Moonee spits on Jancy’s grandma’s car. Halley makes her clean it up. Moonee and Jancy become friends.
ACT I turning Point: Scooty shows Moonee a lighter he found that has a naked woman on it.
Moonee and Scooty show Jancy all over town.
MIDPOINT: The kids light some abandoned condos on fire with the lighter
ALL FALLS APART:
Ashley finds out Moonee pulled Scooty into starting the fire and cuts off her relationship with Halley and Moonie
Halley can’t sell enough bootleg perfume to pay for her rent. She starts turning tricks.
She tries to apologize to Ashley for what Moonie did. Ashley says everyone in the building knows she’s a prostitute. Halley beats the crap out of her.
Ashley reports Halley to the Department of Children’s Services, and they send a social worker. They are investigating Halley for prostitution.
Halley and Moonee clean up their room for DCS. Halley gets rid of all her pot.
Mother and daughter dance in the rain– they love each other. Pure joy.
Halley knows DCS is coming back.
She smokes in the darkness.
ACT II TURNING POINT: Halley takes Moonee out for a breakfast buffet. Tells her daughter to get whatever she wants. Moonee has a wonderful breakfast.
RACE TO THE CLIMAX: Halley walks her daughter back to the motel.
CLIMAX: DCS is there to take Moonee away. Halley doesn’t cooperate. Moonee freaks out and runs away. She goes to Jancy’s hotel room. Jancy asks what’s happening. Finally, Moonee cries. She says, “I can’t say it.” Jancy grabs her hand and the two girls run.
They run down the boulevard, through the Disney World parking lot and inside the theme park.
They race toward the magic castle.
See how simple and yet big these moments are?
Let your characters be flawed. Don’t make them superhuman. Make them products of their pasts, and hopeless, yet hopeful. Watching Haley selling bootleg perfume to try to support Moonie shows us she’s trying to be a good mother. Even as she calls people “bitches,” smokes weed, and sends out bathing suit selfies to her potential sex clients, we see that she loves her daughter. And that Moonee loves her.
Why do you need a literal ending? The fantasy ending of FLORIDA is so unexpected, and yet so perfect, that it takes this film to the next level, emotionally.
TAKE ACTION! If you are writing a small story, make your big moments grounded and real. Be specific in creating your characters, and build worlds that have gorgeous, authentic details. Use smaller emotional beats as turning points, and let your characters be flawed. Find a metaphoric ending that will blow your reader away.
If you are writing stories about real people, watch THE FLORIDA PROJECT.
Sean Baker, the writer and director of this film, has a genius for revealing the humanity in the margins. I also highly recommend his film TANGERINE.
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