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The Writer’s Battle – Reservoir Dogs – Non-Linear Storytelling, Doing More with Less and Setting Your Story to a Soundtrack

Are you going to bark all day little 3.5 doggies, or are you going to bite?

BQB here with a little green bag of a discussion about Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”  What can you 3.5 aspiring writers learn from this flick?  A lot.

Non-Linear Storytelling

Tarantino was the main pioneer of this type of storytelling, namely, when a writer starts at the end and works back to the beginning, rather than start from the beginning and work the story until its conclusion.

In this case, we get an introductory scene where a group of criminals are sitting down for breakfast in a diner.  They trade jokes and we get a sense of each individual’s style.

Next thing you know, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is driving Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) to a hideout.  Mr. Orange has been shot in the gut, an apparent sign that a planned diamond store heist went bad.

You’re never actually shown the heist.  Most of the film takes place in a warehouse/hideout as the characters try to figure out how their heist went so wrong, why the police were waiting for them, and most importantly, which member of the crew is the rat who told the cops about the job?

From there, the film goes into flashbacks where we see bits and pieces of the escape from the heist that went wrong, as well as some past “get to know” some of the characters scenes.  The film always returns to the warehouse as the characters move the story forward, trying to figure out who did the crew wrong.

Tarantino could have done this a different way.  He could have started with the backstory of the characters in the beginning, put the heist that goes wrong in the middle, and have the fighting over who the rat is at the end.

Wouldn’t that have been boring though?  Instead, Tarantino chooses to put the most exciting part first.  You jump right into the action – a blood soaked back seat, a pained Mr. Orange screaming out in terror about his impending demise, a calm Mr. White driving a getaway car while holding Mr. Orange’s hand, telling him he’ll be ok.

Your mind immediately asks the question, “How did this heist go so wrong?”  And now you want to sit back and let Uncle Quentin tell you how.

Doing More with Less

This was the first film Tarantino directed.  Sure, he had a bigger budget than any of us indie writers, but still, he didn’t have much compared to other big name films of the day.

Even so, he did a lot with very little.  Consider:

  • Mr. Blonde’s soda cup – We have a scene where Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) have turned guns on each other, both men starting to lose it as they’re trying to figure out who the rat is and how to avoid going to jail.  Suddenly, we are interrupted by a tell tale sip.  Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) is sipping soda out of a fast food cup through a straw.  The implication?  Mr. Blonde does not give a shit.  He is an unfeeling psychopath.  Any rational person would be scared out of their minds, consumed with fear that the cops will bust down the door any second.  Mr. Blonde?  He murdered a bunch of people in a heist, and then during a citywide search, he stopped at a drive-through to get some food.  He literally did not give a shit that he’d get killed or sent to prison, he was not unsettled by the murders he committed, he was perfectly content to stop for fast food and have a bite to eat while there was a manhunt for him and his crew in progress.  Keep in mind this is not stated.  It’s all about show and tell.  Here, for the price of a ten cent soda cup, Tarantino told us an epic shit ton about Mr. Blonde’s character.

 

  • Steve Buscemi’s gunfight with the cops – So many gun scenes are cliches.  Both sides fight.  No one gets hit.  No one has to reload.  The guns are easy to control, there’s no kickback, everything works out.  Here, Tarantino shows us the furious side of a gun battle.  Buscemi empties his gun at incoming police until his clip runs out.  You see police officers fall in pain, you see the stress on Buscemi’s face.  The message?  Real life gun battles aren’t all summer blockbuster hocus pocus.  Shit gets really terrifying, really fast.

 

  • The nonlinear format itself – I have a hunch that the nonlinear format helped Tarantino save money.  He could have dropped a ton of dough on a major heist scene, show the criminals in an elaborate robbery, followed by epic gunfights and car chases.  Instead, he trusts the actors to tell us about it as they try to piece together the mystery of the rat and the actors do well, the stress they are obviously feeling tells us they were just involved in some heavy shit.

Setting Your Story to a Soundtrack

Tarantino invents a 1970s music station that everyone is listening to throughout the film.  It makes for a retro vibe, and Tarantino was surely trying to pay homage to the cheesy Beretta style crime dramas of his youth.

Playing “Little Green Bag” as the criminals walk down the street gives us a sense that these are some hardcore pricks.

Meanwhile, in an iconic scene, Mr. Blonde tortures a police officer set to the sounds of “Stuck in the Middle with You.”  This song is a happy song, one that makes you want to smile and dance…but it shows what a psycho Mr. Blonde is, namely, that he is enjoying dancing to this happy beat while he’s cutting off a cop’s ear and setting him on fire.

Most people would never do such a thing.  The few that would usually know that this would be no time to dance.  Mr. Blonde is a special kind of crazy.

Of course, you don’t have the rights to use popular songs like Tarantino did.  However, I find that my writing is helped when I listen to songs related to time periods I am writing in.  It puts me in the mood.

How Nonlinear Storytelling Can Fix Plot Holes

Suppose you are a hardened criminal fresh off a botched diamond heist that went wrong due to a rat.  Who would you immediately suspect?

If you said, “The New Guy,” congratulations.  You’re acting like a stylish, early 1990s diamond robber.

The irony is the film goes for most of its length with the characters fighting over who the rat is.  We aren’t told there is a new guy until we get towards the end.  Then we discover Mr. Orange is the new guy and also an undercover cop.  Spoiler?  Shut up, you’ve had since 1992 to watch this thing.

But that’s the thing.  You’re not a stylish early 1990s diamond robber, so you weren’t thinking like one.  Maybe “the new guy” might have popped into your head, but you don’t find out until the end that there was a new guy.  Once you do, you realize the whole crew is apparently very, very, ridiculously stupid.  I mean, they knew he was the new guy.  Why didn’t any of them go, “Hey, I think the new guy might be the rat…”

Had Tarantino followed a linear format and told us up front that Mr. Orange was the new guy, he’d of been the obvious rat suspect, giving away the story’s most vexing question.

Conclusion

With this film and its followup, “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino inspired a generation of filmmakers and writers, challenging them to abandon the rules in favor of coolness, style, and better yet, to grab the viewer’s attention and draw them in.

Think about writing like dating.  If you are super rich and have a ten foot King Kong penis, you might want to drop that information sooner rather than later.  If you make your date wait until the tenth date to find out your most amazing qualities, she might get bored by then and switch you off, like your audience will do with your writing.

In other words, Tarantino dares us to start with the ice cream first, and then we’ll work our way to the meat and potatoes.  Give us that bloody gunshot victim screaming in pain in the backseat right away, and then we’ll stick around to fight out how he got into such a terrible state.

You can do this too, if you dare.  Begin with the most awesome part of your story, then explain how we got there.

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