Wednesday, November 07, 2007

An Amusing Anecdote about a Drug Deal

"What is this?"
"It's an amusing anecdote about a drug deal."
"Something funny that happened to you while you were doing a job."
"I gotta memorize all this shit?"
"It's like a joke. You remember what's important, and the rest you make your own. The only way to make it your own is to keep sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it."
"I can do that."
"The things you gotta remember are the details. It's the details that sell your story."

This exchange occurs in a famous scene of Quentin Tarantino's first movie, Reservoir Dogs. I always associate it with an interview with a famous screen writer that I read in a Danish newspaper. For obvious reasons, I think that writer is Tarantino himself, but I haven't been able to find it to make sure. It could be David Mamet. If anyone knows, drop me a line in the comments...

Anyway, he explains that if you want to write a screen play you have to be able to sit a good friend down over a cup of coffee and tell the story. Not, "I'm thinking of making a movie about this guy who... no, no, wait, did I mention that he ... anyway, he goes into a store, or a restaurant, or ..." etc., but "There was this guy who...and then he went over to he opened the door...and..." etc. You just tell the story. If you can hold your friend's attention for half an hour until you get to the end then you may have the elements of a good movie. If you can't, you don't.

I'd like to suggest the same thing to writers of academic papers. A paper should always have some interesting intellectual content. Sit a colleague down with a cup of coffee and say, "Do you know what happens when companies try to brand themselves on their gender politics? Well, let me tell you..." And if you can hold their attention with the facts, just the facts, for (let's be generous) about fifteen minutes, then you might have the basic content you need for a good paper. Don't say, "I want to write this paper about ... well, it's complex, it's going to draw on systems theory and combine it with deconstruction ..." etc. I'm not saying you can't combine systems theory with deconstruction. But then start the story right. "Do you know what happens when you combine systems theory and deconstruction? No? Well, let me tell you..." And then keep that story interesting.

The scene we started with continues as follows:

Now this story takes place in this men's room. So you gotta know the details about this men's room. You gotta know they got a blower instead of a towel to dry your hands. You gotta know the stalls ain't got no doors. You gotta know whether they got liquid or powdered soap, whether they got hot water or not, 'cause if you do your job when you tell your story, everybody should believe it. And if you tell your story to somebody who's actually taken a piss in this men's room, and you get one detail they remember right, they'll swear by you.

That's it. Make your colleagues believe you know what you're talking about. That's the trick. Make them swear by you.


Andrew Gelman said...

When we were writing Red State Blue State, people kept telling us we need the "elevator pitch," i.e. the short, gripping version of the story that you could tell someone in a 20-second elevator journey.

We kept trying and trying and never got that pitch. Then, a few years after the book came out, I was giving a talk on the topic and dusted off an old talk, and while I was preparing the new talk, it finally came to me: the elevator pitch, a better title for the book, the whole way we should've presented it. A few years too late, though. Damn.

The difference is, I suppose, that a university-press-style book is easy to write and publish, whereas a movie is a big production. Thus, even without the elevator pitch we were able to publish our book, which is good because we were able to get our ideas out there but bad because I don't think the ideas had the impact they could've had, had we gotten our story together at the time.

Thomas said...

My story is the opposite. The book of this blog is still waiting for me to get the basic story, the elevator pitch, straight.