Monday, April 5, 2010

August Rush Asks a Question by Susan May Warren

Welcome to the first Manuscript Monday of April. We're pleased Susan May Warren will continue her series on "Craft Tips and Techniques from Today’s Blockbusters" As a lover of movies (Annette here, though I know Dawn loves movies, too) I've appreciated the parallels Susie's used to help us study craft. Enjoy!

August Rush Asks a Question
by Susan May Warren

It’s the question that is answered in the last line...

Can you hear it?

August Rush Asks a Question

Listen, can you hear it? The music.

I can hear it everywhere.

In the wind;

In the air;

In the light;

It’s all around us.

All you have to do is open yourself up;

All you have to do is listen.

These are the opening lines of last fall’s delightful movie, August Rush, delivered in the haunting, delicate voice of amazing young actor Freddie Highmore. The story opens with young Evan, a so-called orphan, leading a symphony made up of tall grasses in some lush field in upstate New York.

If you haven’t seen August Rush, rush out (pun intended!) and get it today because the soundtrack is soul filling. The pure delight in Evan/August’s eyes as he creates music resonates in the soul of any writer who loves to try on words for size, move sentences around, watch a character take life. Or for that matter, anyone who writes, or runs, or sings or even cooks, just because they must.

You’ll also learn something about the use of story question woven clearly, if not overtly, through every character, every scene in the movie.

A story question, more than a theme of any story, song, or movie, is a specific question that lingers behind every scene, every line of dialogue, every action the character makes. It’s the question that is answered in the last line. It’s the thing that makes a reader/viewer mull upon the story they’ve experienced long after the last notes have faded.

What can we learn about Story Question from August Rush?

Is it possible to hear the music in a person’s heart? Is music universally bonding? I think anyone who has been to a concert (Rascal Flatts to Daugherty) will pump a fist into the air with a resounding yes! But August Rush takes that question and turns it personal. Can people create music—essentially expose their souls to the world—and connect with the one person they’ve been looking for all their lives? This is the specific question that Evan/August asks as he runs away from his orphanage and sets out on a quest for his parents. And it’s this specific question, applied to this little boy, that drags us, fearing and cheering, with him.

It’s not only Evan/August who grapples with this question. In a well-woven story, the main characters all wrestle with some element or mutation of this question. His parents (Keri Russell and Jonathon Rhys Meyers) experienced the answer—which cumulated in August’s conception—but years later lost the ability to listen, to even hear their own music. Until they begin to hear it in their own souls, they’ll never hear it in August’s. The Wizard, played by Robin Williams, believes in the universal truth but scoffs at this personal application, angry with some wretched past at how this hope has betrayed him. He refuses to listen to the music inside and is angry at August’s naivety. The effect of August’s quest— and his unwavering conviction—is shown through the eyes of his social worker (Terrance Howard), who becomes a believer as he sees August’s dreams materialize.

[Spoiler Warning] Although critics might call the story overwritten, even sappy, it’s enjoyable because the answer to the question is easily accessible. We see the journey both parents take as they first acknowledge their “deafness” and begin to open themselves up again to their music; we see how “music” cares for August, landing him in Julliard, and even when he’s pulled back to the street, putting him face-to-face with his father in a wonderfully emotional reunion scene, (clear only to the audience, not to August and his father.) Then we see both parents lured first to each other, then to August as he breaks free from Wizard, believing in the truth, and bares his soul to the world (or at least New York City). The answer to the story question needs to be revealed, one page (or scene) at a time, gradually, but visible to the reader/viewer until it’s finally answered in the last scene.

Admittedly, August Rush is a feel-good movie, one designed to tug at our heart strings. But it works. Because by the end we, too, have listened and opened our hearts to the call of the music around us, and answered the question . . .

Yes, August, we can hear it.

Susan May Warren is the founder of My Book Therapy, a boutique fiction editing service for writers, and runs A Writer’s Blog. See her Web site to learn more about her award-winning fiction.

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