Present vs. past tense: Which to use in your writing

Over the past few years, I have noticed that more and more writers are using the present tense rather than the past tense to tell their stories. I think this trend started in young adult fiction, but now writers of all genres are employing the technique. Some readers don’t like this and will refuse to read books written in present tense.

The present tense is not a grating style choice for me as a reader, unlike the recent trend of not using quotation marks. (That trend, thankfully, seems to be fading away.) I hated it when authors chose not to use quotation marks because it almost always threw me out of the story. I had to keep stopping to figure out whether someone was talking or not. It got to be so common that I wouldn’t even read a book that didn’t have quotation marks. This rule could be broken successfully, though. Cormac McCarthy famously doesn’t use quotation marks, and his writing is so good that there never is any question about what is dialogue and what isn’t. I broke my own rule as well, because I have read and enjoyed several of his novels.

Employing present tense is different, I think, because when done well, it can help draw the reader into the story. It is harder to write effectively in present tense than in past tense (for reasons that I’ll get into), but it’s not Cormac McCarthy-hard. Even more importantly, using present tense is quite often the right choice for the story being told.

To read a story is to be told a story. The storyteller differs from book to book, but someone is telling it, whether it’s a character, a disembodied narrator, or even the writer. Most stories are written in past tense because we are being told a story that has already happened.

This used to be a much more overt conceit. Many stories used to have a frame that related how the storyteller was telling the story and why. The storyteller might be writing the story down in a letter or diary, for instance. Readers needed this conceit for believability. As novels became more common, the conceit was mostly dropped, although it is still used from time to time.

A story told in present tense, though, is happening now. The reader experiences the events along with the storyteller. This makes the story feel more immediate and dramatic, almost cinematic. It’s like watching a movie: We believe we are watching events unfold as they happen.

The downside is that the present-tense narrator cannot know the future. In stories written in past tense, the narrator has the benefit of hindsight, which can be used to heighten suspense. Stephen King employs this technique quite often when he lets slip a character’s fate: “This was the last time he’d ever…” Hindsight also provides the opportunity to layer in meaning and character development, to interpret past events in terms of what came afterward.

A present-tense narrator is, like all of us, stuck in the here and now. A slip in this regard can derail the reading experience. I recently received a copy of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter for early review. It’s written in the present tense, but early on, the first-person narrator reveals that he knows his own future. I won’t say this is the only reason I chose not to review the book–I really didn’t care for the writing style–but it was one of the reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake–perhaps the author had a good rationale for this–but I hadn’t gotten far enough in the story to trust the author on that.

Another problem with present tense is that it relates events as they happen, both the exciting and the mundane. For this reason, present tense is often a better choice for novels with lots of action. We don’t want to read about narrators brushing their teeth or sitting through work meetings. Even this limitation can be gotten around. I recently reviewed an indie book that employed the simple but effective technique of “fast forwarding” through the boring bits, again like a movie.

Authors should not choose present tense because it’s trendy, though, or because everyone seems to be doing it. They should choose the tense that works for the story they are writing. Present tense doesn’t seem like a good choice for historical novels, for instance, because they are presumed to have taken place in the past. Then again, Hilary Mantel uses it for her Wolf Hall novels, which I haven’t read, but who am I to argue with books that have received so many accolades?

Present and past tense can even be mixed, if done with purpose. Kristin Hannah does this in The Nightingale: The contemporary sections are written in present tense, and the historical sections are written in past tense. Things are happening to the narrator as she is telling the story, and the choice of tense helps convey that. (Take care when mixing tenses, though; incorrectly used verb tenses will trip up the reader.)

Present tense is another tool in the author’s toolkit. When chosen purposefully and employed skillfully, it can be an effective way to tell a story.

Quality of self-published books, revisited…

Recently, I wrote about the issue of quality in self-published books when compared to traditionally published books. I’m not the first or only person to have written about this (see here and here and here and here). I have also written about it on this blog many times.

On my latest post on this subject, a commenter wrote: “Writing fiction well is incredibly difficult. There are many areas that need to be mastered.” Truer words… Writing anything well is hard; writing fiction is much more so. Good writing is almost invisible to the reader. It allows the reader to slide effortlessly into the story. Errors trip the reader up like stones in the path; too many of them throw the reader right out of immersion.

The good news is that writing, like any skill, only gets better with practice. Perhaps this is how we should look at self-publishing: as a place to practice. As long as both readers and writers are aware of this–and readers who don’t want to spend their time or money on books that aren’t ready for prime time aren’t excoriated for that–I see no problem.

By the way, readers get better with practice too. The more you read, the easier it becomes to lose a connection with a poorly written book.

The self-published arena is mind-bogglingly huge. I’m not saying that every self-published book was written by someone just learning how to write. I am not talking about writers who have been doing this a while and who have established a readership. Their decision to self-publish is primarily a business decision. Their readers will find their books wherever they are. They don’t need me telling them how to produce a high-quality product.

Who am I talking to? I’m talking to writers who are learning and who aspire to become better at what they do so they can reach more readers.

If, as a writer, you want to be favorably reviewed–not by Joe Schmo book blogger, but by professional publications whose recommendations you can use to help sell your book–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to be considered for prizes, then you need to worry about quality. If you want to get your book into libraries–and libraries are a primary market for many children’s books*–then you need to worry about quality. If you want to attract readers who primarily read traditionally published books–who are looking for a great read and nothing more–then you need to worry about quality.

If you have such aspirations and you decide to self-publish, then you need to make your book the best it can be. You will be up against not only all of the barriers that all writers face, but also the stigma of self-publishing in general. Rightly or wrongly, self-published books in general have a reputation for low quality. Even if you in particular are an outstanding writer who pays scrupulous attention to crafting your books, you still have to contend with the fact that the majority of self-published authors do not. By some counts, up to a million books are self-published each year. Think about that.

In future posts, I will talk more specifically about common mistakes I see and how writers can improve the quality of their work. This is meant to be advice, not prescriptive. Take it or leave it. Note that comments are moderated and I do have a commenting policy here.

*Please, if you write for children, please use correct spelling and grammar. They are just beginning to learn the language. They deserve competent teachers.

As a review, here are my ten markers for a minimum baseline of quality fiction writing, slightly updated:

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. 
  2. Verb tense is consistent. 
  3. Point of view is consistent. 
  4. Character names are consistent. So are other facts given in the text.
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. 
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

Self-publishing’s quality problem…

When I pick up a book in a bookstore — which, more than likely, is a book issued by a publishing company, also known as a “traditionally published” book — I can usually assume that book will meet my baseline for quality*. In other words, it may not be a good story, the writing may be lacking, or it may not be a book that speaks to me, but at the very least, it will be readable.

As a freelance book reviewer,** I have reviewed a fair number of self-published books, otherwise known as “indies,” over the past year and a half. The majority of these did not meet even the bare minimum baseline for quality. Conservatively, I’d estimate that at least 70 percent of the self-published books I reviewed were essentially unreadable. (A small number of the books I reviewed were published by small presses, but in terms of quality, they resembled traditionally published books more than self-published books.)

This is a problem for self-published authors. Indie books have to compete not only against one another, but also against the millions of traditionally published books that are in print or are being published. As a reader, what incentive do I have to even consider self-published books as an option if I know that any one I happen to choose is very likely to be gobbledygook? I could choose instead to read only traditionally published books and have more than enough reading material to last me several lifetimes.

Yes, some self-published authors are quite good and are worth reading. But readers have no incentive to swim through a vast ocean of junk just to find those few pearls. Amazon reviews are completely useless as a guide to quality. Every self-published book I’ve reviewed, even the most wretched, has several five-star reviews on Amazon, presumably written by the author’s friends or family members or perhaps even by the author himself.

Speaking of Amazon, which is the largest marketplace for self-published books, their business model rewards authors who publish most frequently. In other words, Amazon incentivizes writers to produce more and and more junk without regard for quality, including books shamelessly plagiarized from better authors.

If those who self-publish want to be considered viable alternatives to traditionally published authors, they are going to have to figure out some trustworthy way to signal to readers which books are worth their time and money. I’m not sure of the solution–although I have some ideas–but right now, self-publishing doesn’t seem like a viable alternative for either serious writers or for readers.

*For reference, here is my personal baseline of quality, the ten minimum standards a book must meet in order for me to consider it readable. If a book I am reviewing does not meet these standards, it will not get a good review. Period. Note that these standards are for fiction; nonfiction requires different standards, although there is a lot of crossover.

  1. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage are mostly correct. (At the very least, run the spell checker.)
  2. Verb tense is consistent.
  3. Point of view is consistent. (No head-hopping or random switches between first and third person.)
  4. Character names are consistent. (Really.)
  5. Sentence structure has some variety and complexity.
  6. There is a balance in dialogue, exposition, and action.
  7. Exposition isn’t given primarily through dialogue. (“As you know, Bob…”)
  8. Characters have some non-stereotyped development.
  9. There is some plot and plot points make sense.
  10. The story is not overly didactic; the author’s voice does not noticeably intrude.

If, as a writer, you don’t understand what I mean by any of these terms, you need to do some basic study of your chosen craft.

**Note: I am assigned book reviews by the publications that I review for. I don’t receive books from the authors directly. All books reviewed on my blogs are books that I review from my personal reading, not book reviews that I am paid to write.

Coming up, I will discuss some other ways self-published authors can produce a higher quality product.  

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.

The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.

“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.

Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)

Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)

Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.

In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”

“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:

All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.

Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:

The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.

When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.

That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.

Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:

For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.

Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.

Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.

The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.

 

 

Six identities, six stories

As I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,  it hit me that the six identities of the writer she explores can also be interpreted as six story archetypes. Almost every story I could think of fit at least one of the archetypes, and many took elements from several of them.Clearly, these are stories that resonate deeply with us.

It’s no accident that Atwood gives many examples from horror fiction to support the archetypes she identifies in her book. Horror, which confronts both our fear of and fascination with death, is the most primal of literary genres. It is also most closely tied to our oldest kinds of stories: myths, legends, and fairy tales. Following Atwood’s lead, I have chosen horror novels to illustrate each of the six archetypes. I have found at least one famous classic work of horror literature that perfectly exemplifies each category.

Categorizing is fun, as well as a human compulsion. These archetypes provide an interesting and, I think, useful way of thinking about stories. (But of course, it is not the only way.)

(1) Realization story: The protagonist realizes something critical about his/her own nature and undergoes fundamental change. Best known as the coming-of-age story.

Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a perfect example of a coming-of-age and self-realization story.

(2) Duplicity story: Dual natures, whether internal or external, are placed in opposition to one another. Includes stories of good versus evil, rivalry, tricksters, doppelgangers, and shapeshifters.

Example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is the prototypical split personality story, exploring the warring dark and light sides of human nature.

(3) Devotion story: The protagonist is dedicated to something higher than him/herself and pursues it, no matter what the human cost. Includes stories of playing God, pursuing art for art’s sake, giving oneself over to the gods or the muse, and self-sacrifice.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is the story of a scientist who pursues his quest to create life and winds up creating a monster with horrific consequences for him and everyone he loves.

(4) Temptation story: The protagonist is tempted to violate what is ethical or right in exchange for personal gain. Includes stories of deals with the devil, falls from grace, black magic, and forbidden love.

Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man who gives into a life of hedonism and eternal youth, the effects of which show only on his portrait, but ends up losing his soul in the process (also Doctor Faustus and all its variants).

(5) Outsider story: The storyteller is a stranger or stands apart from the world in some way and reports what s/he witnesses or discovers something that must be told. Dystopias often fall into this category.

Examples: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is about a scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes a hated and feared exile from society as a result.

(6) Descent story: The protagonist journeys to a strange land outside of normal human experience or encounters the supernatural on a quest to bring back something of value or to save or avenge someone. Includes stories of the hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, and many ghost stories.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker begins with a journey to a foreign land, where Jonathan Harker encounters the supernatural vampire, and ends with a quest by a band of heroes to destroy Dracula and save Mina Harker (also The Odyssey  and Beowulf).

 

Negotiating with the dead: Margaret Atwood on what it means to be a writer

The short book, Negotiating with the Dead, is a collection of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave on writing. This is not a typical writing handbook, dispensing now-cliched advice like “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” Rather, Atwood tackles the question of what does it mean to “be a writer?” What is the writer, anyway, and why are writers compelled to write? She ends up posing more questions than she answers.

The six lectures each address a different aspect of the Writer. Using examples from literature, poetry, and mythology, Atwood positions the writer as six archetypes. Indeed, each of her lectures could describe types of story as well as facets of the storyteller (more on that in a later post). Atwood’s insights are unusual but will ring true to anyone who has felt the urge to write, or indeed, to any creator, I suspect.

The following are my notes on each lecture. However, to gain full understanding of Atwood’s insights, you should read the book; it won’t take you long, and if you are interested in writing or literature, it is worth it.

(1) Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is “a writer,” and how did I become one?

“Who do you think you are?” is the question every writer gets asked, and every writer asks him/herself. Is the writer special? Society seems to accord the writer a certain respect. The writer cannot distinguish between the real and imagined: “Every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.”

(2) Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double. Why there are always two.

Every writer is a double: one-half does the living, one-half does the writing. “The writer is obscured by the image he himself has created.” The author is “the name without any body except a body of work.”

The printed text is like a musical score. New readers make the text new by finding fresh meaning in it. The “act of reading is like playing music and listening to it at the same time and the reader becomes his own interpreter.”

(3) Dedication: The great god pen. Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?

The writer as priest/ess, serving “the potentially destructive cult of art for art’s sake.” The writer sacrifices him/herself for art and forfeits the “human ability to feel.”

In the question of money versus art, Atwood reaches no real conclusion except that women have it harder (always).

(4) Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co. Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?

Writers are haunted by their own inconsequence. “Nobody hates writers more than writers do. Nobody loves them more either.”

When money and power intersect art, they control what the writer may produce. This is the outside world’s influence. In other words, how much for your soul?

Where the writer influences the outside world, this is the writer’s social responsibility. What is the writer’s duty?

“The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.” Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

Trying for power is unethical, but not engaging with the world risks irrelevance. Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? Possibly the witness.

Can anything and everything be viewed as material? Not only does the writer lose the soul, but also the heart. The cold-eyed artist observes and records.

It isn’t the writer who decides whether his/her work is relevant–it’s the reader.

(5) Communion: Nobody to Nobody. The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.

The common writerly dilemma is the question: Who is going to read this?

For whom does the writer write? Where is the writer when the reader is reading? (Not in the same room). The writer is the invisible man–not there but also solidly there at the same time.

The reader is a spy who overhears or trespasses. The reader is “nobody” (you, dear reader, constant reader). But the reader is also the reading public (the “admiring Bog”).

Books must travel from reader to reader to stay alive.

(6) Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why? (This is the key chapter.)

All writing is motivated by a fear of and fascination with mortality. Writing is linked closely to anxiety about one’s own personal extinction. It is desire for (grasping at) immortality. Writing has apparent permanence; it survives its own performance.

Storytelling is the relation of events unfolding through time, and time runs out for everyone. The dead are situated outside of time but persist in the minds of the living. They know the past and the future. We can gain knowledge (stories) from them.

The dead can talk if you know how to listen, and they want to talk. Give the dead what they want to get what we want (knowledge, luck, protection, riches, glory, lost love). They want blood (life, sacrifice, revenge, food). However, they will retaliate if the deal is broken.

All writers learn from the dead. The dead control the past, so they also control the stories, and the truth. The writer makes the journey from “now” to “once upon a time.”

The writer goes to the Underworld (any “other world” outside of time) and brings back stories. The story is in the dark. The writer is of both worlds (double-natured).

It’s easy to go there but hard to come back. Then you must write it all down. Then the right reader must come along so it can speak.

A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave. You can’t live there. Even if someone is briefly brought to life in the writing, they are always lost again.

“By my voice I shall be known.”

 

 

In which I critique American Beauty fifteen years too late…

I remember when I used to love to go to the movies. I went almost every weekend, because I could find a movie I wanted to see every weekend. I was often surprised by something entirely new: Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, American Beauty.

It seems those days are passed. I can no longer get to the movie theater as often as I used to–one of the downsides of being a parent–but even when I have the opportunity, I rarely find something I’d like to watch. Even watching movies at home, with all the choices available to me now, is a chore. With rare exceptions, movies are no longer surprising. They are safe, and I feel like I’ve seen all those explosions, heard all those jokes, before.

I thought I might turn to movies I watched long ago to see if they still hold up. First up: American Beauty (primarily because it is streaming on Netflix). Remember this?

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Deep, right?

Fifteen years later, I have a very different take on this film. Move on if you haven’t seen the movie because I’m about to spoil it big time.

Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty is the prototypical man-boy in Lester Burnham, isn’t he? He quits his job to work in a fast food restaurant, masturbate, smoke dope, lift weights, buy a muscle car, and mack on a teenage girl.

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But on a rewatch, it occurred to me that maybe this movie is much more subversive than I originally thought. The events of the film are presented through Burnham’s distorted, thoroughly unreliable point of view (he is the narrator). It is only in the last few minutes of his life that Burnham sees how wrong he has been about pretty much everything. His wife is not a nagging shrew but is only unhappy because her partner has turned into unsupportive dead weight, another child for her to raise. His daughter is not a bitch but a damaged child searching in vain for a father. His daughter’s friend is not the nymphet Lolita of his fantasies but just a naive young girl and his fantasies are basically about child rape. And the kid next door who he so romanticizes, his “hero,” is actually just a skeevy drug dealer and quite possibly a sociopath who no sane dad would want dating his daughter.

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In fact, Lester is killed by another version of a man-boy, the character played by Chris Cooper, who has refused his whole life to grow up and admit to the truth about himself or about the world. When that truth finally hits him in the face, he reacts in the most immature way possible, with gun violence.

All those people who watch this movie and admire Lester Burnham and want to be like him are actually part of the joke. Because Lester Burnham is thoroughly unadmirable, in every possible way, and his scant redemption comes far too late. I think what the movie’s real message is that yes, there is a lot that is soulless and twisted about modern society, but regressing to man-boyhood is not the way to deal with it.

Well, maybe I’m projecting, but that’s what we do with art. I just still want to like this movie.