Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)
by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.
But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates. Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film "Pan’s Labyrinth," a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from "Hellboy," "Pan’s Labyrinth," "Pacific Rim," or "The Shape of Water." But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in "Pan’s Labyrinth" (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:
 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless. It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.” - Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT
The Pale Man
(image from Pan's Labyrinth media kit)
And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

"The Shape of Water" is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon."

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest. And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)
All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, "Crimson Peak," the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something. Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:
“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love. Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn't define you until the end... The way you end your story is important. It's important that we choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan's Labyrinth media kit)
This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

1 comment:

LinWash said...

Great post, Kate! I love Guillermo del Toro also. His Hellboy movies are among my favorites. Pan's Labyrinth was a masterpiece. Thank you for these tips. I'm a firm believer in the need for crafting a spectacular ending.