This is a regularly scheduled reminder. Today, we’re multitasking, and would thus like to remind you of several things at once.
- There are many types of beauty.
- Anything in real life can be interpreted vaguely enough to apply to writing.
I was watching The Lego Movie recently, for about the fifth or sixth time, and something struck me about halfway through. It’s a scene I absolutely adore, the midpoint and one of the biggest emotional impacts in the movie. The bad guys have just attacked and the main character’s safe haven and most of his friends are destroyed or captured. I love this scene every time I see it. I consider it one of the most beautiful moments of all the movies I’ve watched.
But as I watched it this time, I realized it wasn’t all that beautiful. Yes, there were a couple exquisite shots that really tugged at the emotions, but it wasn’t the cinematography or animation that made it beautiful. It wasn’t, essentially, the way the writers told the story at that point. It was the story they were telling.
For about fifteen seconds, they expand a side character from a joke five minutes before into a walking emotional impact. They really delve into her point of view (just for fifteen seconds— this is no infodump) and show the world at that moment exactly as she sees it. We’re seeing it through her lens of pain, loneliness, and crushing depression, contrasted with her optimistic attitude that’s always trying to keep her happy. The storytelling gets more poetic for those fifteen seconds, but only because of what it’s trying to portray: the character’s emotion.
And it struck me. This is one of the most beautiful scenes ever, and it isn’t the storytelling. It isn’t the words, or the sequence, or the colors. It isn’t the symbolism, or the grammatical constructs, or the music. It’s the macro, not the micro. That shocked me a bit.
You say beautiful writing, I think Leo Tolstoy. I think John Milton. I think Shakespeare. When I’m not in the mood for classics, I think Maggie Stiefvater and Cornelia Funke and Laini Taylor. And all of these writers have beautiful words, but that’s not all. Their beautiful prose accompanies a host of vivid characters with real motivations and twisty plots. The beauty of the prose enhances the bones of the story, but can’t be beautiful without those bones intact.
Beauty is only skin deep? Nah. Beauty in writing goes down to the macro elements, the plot, setting, and character. Most of all, it goes down to the emotions.
I finished the movie, and eventually came to the conclusion that The Lego Movie is one of the most beautiful movies, in its entirety, that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the one scene. It’s not as if it builds in beauty as it nears the end, with the beginning just a little bit shoddy. No, it’s beautiful all the way through. The emotions it builds, the promises it makes and keeps, the characters it explores in just seconds— they all contribute. And I love it.
You don’t think of The Lego Movie as a beautiful movie. It makes rude jokes. It has a robot pirate with cannon hands. It has Wonder Woman, and Middle Zealand, and Abraham Lincoln on a space chair as an obscure Star Trek reference. Beautiful movies are supposed to have metaphor, and philosophy, and deeply disguised social criticisms. The Lego Movie criticizes the growing generation of Lego hoarders who are using their incomes to live a childhood dream. That doesn’t have much political, socioeconomic value.
And yet, it’s beautiful. Because five minutes in, you think, This movie was written by a ten-year-old. And ninety minutes in, the writers throw that back at you. Just before the midpoint, you’re laughing at a bunch of disconnected jokes, and ten minutes later you are almost in tears with another emotion entirely. You feel sorry for the 1980s spaceman, then watch him fulfill his promise satisfactorily at the beginning of the third act— then you see him blow his promise completely out of the water in the next five minutes as he becomes, if not your absolute favorite character, your favorite character until Princess Unikitty starts working on her own promises. This movie is corny and it admits it in the title. You knew exactly what you were getting into, and once the writers start exceeding your expectations, you’re completely on board.
This movie is beautiful. Almost none of that beauty comes from sophisticated animation, or beautiful music, or serious metaphors. It is the ultimate stage magician, distracting you with joke after joke until it blindsides you with emotion, then hits you with another joke. It is a powerful movie because it only takes itself seriously enough to tell a good story.
Beautiful writing is not serious writing. It is not funny writing, either. It is not social commentary, and it doesn’t ignore the real world. It isn’t defined by good prose or following the rules or even, if you knew the truth, vivid characters and a solid plot. Beautiful writing is just a level above great writing, which is just a level above good writing, which is above mediocre writing. You get from one to the next, not by copying the beautiful writers, but by practicing. Learning how to make things work. And never considering anything less beautiful just because it doesn’t include thought-provoking metaphors.
Telling a story well is up to you. Telling it beautifully is no different.