George Bailey: ‘A Wonderful Life’ Lesson for Writers

Considering that my little post The 5 Secrets of Marley and Scrooge resulted in a 2500% increase in visitor traffic to this corner of the web, it seems prudent to publish another fun and light (and hopefully enlightening) exploration of a Christmas classic.

By the end of this post we will have connected It’s a Wonderful Life to Nicholas Cage. Can you guess how?

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, we are shown a beautiful character arc. This arc is of the ‘revelation’ kind.

George Bailey (poor, poor, rich George Bailey) does not experience a change in his life station or circumstances, and yet the revelation at the end that he is ‘The richest man in Bedford Falls’ is a prime example of a story arc—and we as writers could learn a lesson from his story.

3 Questions about the Wonderful Life

To fully understand the account from a writer’s perspective, we must ask ourselves:

  • Who did the character change?
  • What do audience members learn about themselves?
  • Why did the character himself change?

So, who did George Bailey change? Whose lives were affected—for better or for worse—by his actions? As Clarence, angel-second-class, noted, all the men aboard that troop transport died, because Harry Bailey was not there to save them, because George was not there to save Harry when Harry fell into the ice as a child. (What did all those other boys do, just watch little Harry drown?)

Because George wasn’t there to stop him from buying up everything, old man Henry Potter was free to turn Bedford Falls into Las Vegas, aka Pottersville.

Ah yes, if I could buy up my town’s properties, I would end up calling this place Buckelsville for sure. Can’t blame Potter. The man is a classic antagonist, without a single redeeming character trait, and yet I loved watching him and listening to his besmirching growl of a voice.

In effect, George Bailey touched every single life in Bedford Falls—and beyond. It is interesting to note that even though he never got to travel like he wanted, George Bailey still had a positive effect on the outside world.

What does the audience learn about themselves from watching George’s sad tale? A great moral: Each life touches so many other lives, even when we don’t see it at first. And no man is a failure who has friends.

Which suggests that if you don’t have friends, you must be a failure. Crazy, how dangerous positive quotes can be if you look at what they intimate at the other end of the spectrum.

And finally, why did the character of George Bailey change? How could he go from two extremes, from attempted suicide to tears of joy? It wasn’t the saving of yet another life (that of Clarence). It wasn’t his seeing how miserable everybody was without him around to do things for them.

No, it was because he was finally shown the same level of sacrifice that he always showed to the people of Bedford Falls. Throughout It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sacrifices one dream after another, constantly postponing his hopes by giving of himself, for the betterment of others.

It’s not until the end that the miserable ingrates of Bedford Falls at last show him their gratitude and offer up money to cover the $8,000 that the silly stupid old fool Uncle Billy gave to Potter.

At that moment George Bailey finally understands what true riches are. He has friends. He need not suffer because of other people. Though up to that point he had suffered for others, for his entire life!

This is why some Christian radio stations like to promote the movie; its sacrificial and Christ-like overtones resonate on a deep level with love and the divine sacrifice.

So, in the end George Bailey’s lot in life has not changed. He still hasn’t climbed the highest mountains or seen the Louvre. But he is now happy, because he has realized what he failed to see during all those long years of depression and darkness: he is loved. This is shown by having his example of self-sacrifice returned to him.

Another Christmas movie took the general idea of It’s a Wonderful Life and yanked it around to pull a 180.

Nicholas Cage’s 2000 The Family Man, is about a rich man being shown how poor he is. This is done through a Glimpse, a sort of Scroogian view into an alternate reality where he made different choices, as shown by Don Cheadle.

While I enjoy the typical Cage antics and can certainly see the appeal of Tea Leoni, the movie simply does not resonate in my heart the way that It’s a Wonderful Life does.

This may be due to a number of factors, but I think the main reason The Family Man is not as effective a heartstring-puller as George Bailey’s wonderful life, is because on an emotional level we prefer the story of a poor man being shown he is rich, to that of a rich man being shown he is poor. On paper and on the big screen, the former just looks and sounds more appealing, more compelling, and more necessary.

Then again, Dickens pulled off this very thing with Scrooge; he showed a rich man how poor he was (because he didn’t have any friends, maybe?), and we are still eating up the tale, nearly 175 years later. Alas, very few of us are Charles Dickens.

In your books, you might want to remember these points:

  • It is often a good idea to pull on your readers’ heartstrings—just be gentle about it
  • A character’s station in life does not need to change for him to experience an ‘arc’
  • Revelation is a subtle art best served slowly—not as a punch in the face
  • A character is shaped—for better or for worse—by those whose lives he effects

I hope you have found something enlightening or entertaining in this little digression. What is your favorite Christmas movie? Can you find something useful in it for your writing? I bet you can. You might want to check out 7 Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life, by theweek, here.

(Side Note: I’d like to wish my brother a happy birthday. Wherever you are, just know that we love you and you are always welcome here. Happy Birthday, D!)

The Winds of Winter: Expectations and Epic Fantasy

While most book launches from best-selling authors are looked on with anticipation and are built up with hype, few have been on the hype waiting list longer than George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter.

The great fantasist has been working on the sixth installment to the Song of Ice and Fire series for over seven years.

(According to Totally Reliable Internet Theorists, Martin has actually been working on it, though many dispute this claim. Flavorwire reports that Martin has been too busy working on a collection of Tyrion quips, titled The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister—among other equally useful endeavors—to be bothered finishing the book his fans want. By the way, that report was made four years ago.)

Though already something of a cult classic, the SOIAF series exploded into viral-levels of fame with the phenomenal success of its HBO adaptation, the more aptly named Game of Thrones. From magazine covers to extended literary works set in Westeros, the epic fantasy has truly become larger than life.

With each episode costing nearly $10 million, and the ratings for each season increasing, there seems no end to the popularity of this series.

Tourism has increased by as much as 40% in the locations where Game of Thrones is shot! The show Supernatural even took the time to have its main characters sit down and watch Game of Thrones (I love the scene where Sam says he doesn’t want to watch the later seasons until he has read all the books; and his brother Dean mocks him for that, saying: Why read the books? That’s stupid.)

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that as of the fifth season, events in the show have (inevitably) passed beyond events and scenes in the books.

So the big question is: Can any book live up to such a crazy level of hype?

You’re right, the question is fundamentally flawed. Readers know that the greatness or crapiness of TV series and movie adaptations don’t have a hope of holding a candle to their book sources. It is very rare (though not unheard of) for movies and shows to surpass their book sources in quality and interest.

The question then becomes: can The Winds of Winter match the greatness of its book predecessors?

Consider this: George R.R. Martin has spent more time writing (or not writing—depending on who you ask) the sixth book of the SOIAF series than on any of the previous books in the series. The first book, A Game of Thrones, won awards when it was published in 1996—though it wasn’t a bestseller until fifteen years later in 2011. Hmm, that’s the same year the HBO hit came out. Coincidence? I think not.

Consider this: he’s been writing the series for more than twenty years, it’s a good bet his skills have improved, though I can’t find anything amiss with the first book, writing-wise, that would require a honing of his writing chops. In most cases (here’s looking at you, Stephen King) writers tend to improve over time.

Consider this: George Martin has had the benefit of working with two extraordinary scriptwriters and producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who have taken his vision and shown it to the world on the small screen. Benioff is himself an excellent novelist!

They say company rubs off on you. Well, Martin has been keeping some good company in the years that The Winds of Winter has been in production.

Whichever face the coin falls on, you can bet Winds of Winter will become an instant bestseller. It doesn’t matter if the spoilers have been spoiled, or if it follows the pattern of the previous two books in their meandering narratives, where a lot of people die but little progress is made.

If any book can live up to the hype, it is the epic fantasy written by the modern master of epic fantasies. You just have to wonder, if the hype just keeps building, whether he works on the book or not, does George R.R. Martin even feel compelled to finish this unfinished work? Does he even have to finish it? Why not let someone else take over, if he’s too busy writing a superhero anthology with his writing buddies?

Whenever it does come out, The Winds of Winter will break the charts, win awards, and make a rich man even richer. Hmm, perhaps hype isn’t so great after all.

But I’m still going to get the book when it comes out.


Convert Blog Visitors into Customers For Your E-Books

This is a follow up to the previous post, which covered the Number 1 Reason your e-books are not selling. Here we will discover the three most common causes of ‘exposed’ books not selling.

So, you’ve spread the word about your blog—and, by extension, your e-books. Your Google Analytics numbers are all up, people visit and comment on your site, and you’re getting thousands of impressions and a couple hundred clicks on your AMS ad campaign. Congratulations, the world knows about your e-books.

And yet, you’re still not selling bucket loads of books.

Now what gives?

God knows I am far from the leading expert in the field of e-book sales. But I am sufficiently experienced and self aware to confess that there are three main issues keeping my book sales from increasing to where they should be. Odds are that these same issues apply to many of my fellow struggling writers. (Remember, I am on this journey with you. When I learn something, I share it. I know less than some, more than others. There are plenty of experts who would share possibly wiser advice, but they have a tendency to make things terribly expensive. Here at buckelsbooks we offer the poor man’s perspective, with tips designed to help those who are struggling and cannot yet afford to employ the ‘other guys’ pricey advice.)

The Three Main Reasons Your E-Books are Still not Selling

  • Your cover art is not quite up to snuff
  • Your e-book lacks reviews
  • Your descriptions (ad campaign, ad copy, book description) are kinda lame

Continue reading “Convert Blog Visitors into Customers For Your E-Books”