Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Onion Boy

A colleague once asked us to call him the "onion boy", as he designed a system of layers to prevent computer software attacks, as soon as you peel back on paper thin looking obstacle, another awaits.  It stuck -- both the name and the system, to the dismay of its creator, beyond its usefulness.

So maybe layering has something to do with longevity in creations.  Take the movie "Pretty Woman" for example, each layer of stories, characters and interactions in the movie beg you to discover, peel back and find new richness as you view it through the test of times.

I didn't see all the layers at first.  It was more of an language issue for me at the time.  But once I was able to peel back the outer layer story, the one about a fairy tale prince rescuing a princess (or, as the case might be, working girl), I saw the movies charm also belies in Edward's interactions with Jim Morse, an almost father figure to him, as compared to how Edward's memory of his real father had shaped him. These angles overlap with the fairy tale, but adds a new dimension to the story.

photo courtesy of
It's a bit like falling in love with the perfect guy (or girl), then discover that you are in love with his or her family too, and the feeling deepens as a result.  Similarly Vivien's friendship with the loud mouthed but golden heart "kid", while adds little to the fairy tale in itself, builds another lovable sister into the genealogy.  Even the negative characters, especially them, on some levels, adds the odious layers required for a complete onion / family attachment. Edward's faceless girlfriends and wives are central in explaining his character and past.  The greedy, shady and ruthless ex-best friend lawyer Phil completes the family portrait by adding the annoying little brother you never wanted but couldn't stop inviting to family gatherings anyway.  Of course he would always bring his wife, the one who inspires thoughts like "you could freeze ice on (her) ass".

Photo courtesy of

"No wonder! ... no wonder you came down to the Blvd looking for me."  exclaimed Vivian.

Can you believe her? The audacity?  But at that moment, I did.  

Why all this talk about onions and layers?  I am just getting to it.  In a way this is something new writers perhaps struggle with.  My stories started with exactly one character, me, or more precisely, my thoughts.  Later on, some of them had two characters, and a few lines about the surrounding temperature and some trees nearby.  It feels pale because it is.  When I read writers who had done it for a while, I not only see the main story, I also see the setting, the people around them, and a very realistic world in which the story unfolds.  Want to see an example?  Check here. It is tough to establish a cast of characters with so few words, but if you browse back in a few stories, you'd find she typically manages OK.

We could also look at another movie.  The King's Speech, besides a winner of all sorts of awards, is another example on layering.  It differs slightly from the previous examples, in that the layers are built between the two people central to the story - the teacher and his pupil, the speech therapies and the king and in many ways, two great friends in the best sense.

What is similar though is the layers again, dug back deep into childhood hurts. Lionel Logue, an Australian born speech therapist, manages to cut through many layers of royal rules by calling his patient, then Duke of York, by his family nick name: Bertie.  His insistence on building a personal relationship separate from the treatment itself, work to add not only layers of witty and funny dialogues, but also help uncovered the source of the stammer, and the very personal story of a king.  

But what about the family of characters? In this movie they are as much a literal family as a movie one.  Well, I guess I do not have all the answers.  They are there, the movies stands at least in part, on their interactions with the king.  But I can't see them as standing on their own layers.  They serve as important context for the movie, but they are faint, almost like backdrops.  Maybe that's the nature of the royal family, they each have so much stories on their own,  it could be tough to add too much to them without distracting the main theme, where there are so much to tell already.  I mean, how can you have king Edward or Winston Churchill in there and not have a whole movie just about him?  It's a tough balance, and I think the King's Speech did a fine job in tweaking the lever.

Or maybe I just need to see it a few more times.  Only time could tell, and perhaps the onion boy.

What about you? Do you see layers in these and other movies?  Any thoughts about incorporating more layers into your stories?


  1. I really enjoyed this post. Good choice of blogger to illustrate your example by the way, she is a fantastically talented blogger.

    I am still working hard towards finding my writing style and trying new things. I do think the best films and books do contain lots of messages and layers. I have a post appearing on a fellow bloggers post next week where I have tried this approach.

    I'm going to see the Kings Speech tomorrow night and can't wait.

  2. This post is a brilliant illustration of thinking and writing in layers. Coming from a family of storytellers I grew up looking at everything in layers. The who, what, when, where and how, not just the simple answer.
    Very much enjoyed this post.

  3. Excellent post! What a great way to think about it! That’s when hear yourself say – “Great writing”

    The movie Memento is an unusual example of layers in storytelling. In this tale the layers are revealed in reverse order to a man with anterograde amnesia - the inability to form new memories. Each layer of the story is a separate reality for the protagonist.

    Inception – interesting that this movie is also by Christopher Knolan – is another example. This time the layers are within dreams. - I just saw Inception recently and remembered Memento.

    When writing, layers seem to happen naturally. Some happen as planned...some happen accidentally. They are very important to any story.

  4. Yes, you have to write a story with layers! People are layered! We see the outside at first--and then once we get to know them, little by little, the layers are peeled back. Sometimes we get to the core, sometimes we don't. We have to remember characters ARE multi-faceted!

  5. We just watched The King's Speech a couple of weeks ago. The acting, ah the acting -- superb. It was such a pleasure.

  6. You are absolutely right, of course, about the makings of a good story. And how easy it is to flesh out only one character and write your other characters one dimensional.

    And Pretty Woman is one of my favorite movies.

  7. Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog that prompted me to visit yours and find this amazing post. I first heard the onion metaphor over thirty years ago, but it was in reverse, in the context of "I keep peeling off layers to discover new aspects of myself, much like peeling an onion." I like your version of it better. When you peel an onion, you eventually end up with nothing. When you build something up, you may achieve magnificence -- as you have in this post.

  8. I love to peel away the main them in a movie or story and find out what lies beneath. I have always enjoyed your comments on my blog for that same reason. You always seem to peel away the outer layer and comment on something underneath. I value that greatly and find that I enjoy the depth of both your comments and your blog.

  9. I'm so glad to know you Shop Girl! What a wonderful find you are.
    I'm just starting to rediscover my love of writing and layers is something I do not know how to incorporate. This has been a timely read for me and I will follow the link you posted. Thank you!

  10. This is such a wonderful post. I never thought of Pretty Woman this way- the layers. Or rather I never watched any movie with such detail. I feel like seeing it again.

    This reminds me a novel I read long long time ago. I don't remember the title or author. I think it was translated from French. It brought out all the layers of the people who were residing in an apartment and everyone associated with them.

  11. runawaybride - that sounds like a french book I read: L'élégance du hérisson, or in English: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. That's an excellent example of layering.

    I highly recommend revisiting favorites.

  12. HF&I - Thanks for sharing your writing thoughts. I enjoy reading your posts which I thought had lots of interesting aspects. I agree it's challenging though.

    Barbra L - A family of story tellers, what a blessing that is! Looking forward to hear / read more from you.

    Loree - I've been meaning to see those movies, especially Inception. I may have to wait for the video/DVD release now though. I agree sometimes it does seem to happen quite naturally.

    Her Highness - Agreed. I must pay more attention to that in future writings, it adds so much more interest.

  13. Cassandra - I can hardly decide who was more superb, Lionel or Colin Firth. Both were exceptional.

    Angela - I thought it made a great example as I've seen it so many times. :)

    Sharon - Interesting perspective. I've not thought about it that way, suppose onion has a heart too?

    Nari - Maybe that's because I'm such a slow reader sometimes I have added my own thoughts into it by the time I finished. Thanks!

    PAMO - It's so great to meet you too. I really enjoyed your blog and am looking forward to reading more.

  14. I love all these movies, there are definately layers in the writing, thanks for sharing:)

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  16. I SO appreciate stories with layers. To me, it feels like all real stories have layers. To have layers is to be human, to be interacting and growing with or away from people.

    Figuring out the layers, pealing them back and seeing what else is there... that's the fun part (:

  17. I haven't seen The Kind's Speech yet, but I will. And you're getting very good at this movie thing - dissecting and critiquing - much more thoughtful than most movie discussions.
    Shopgirl, I think you may have been the first, or at least one of the very first, bloggers I read when I started blogging some nine months ago, and I've really enjoyed watching you work the layering. Yes, you've become quite skilled at peeling and pulling and draping. You're stockpiling those onions, aren't you? Loved this post. ;)

  18. I love it when books, and movies, have lots of layers. Pretty Woman is one of my favorites! I still haven't seen The King's Speech yet. Shame on me!

  19. You chose two of my favorite movies to discuss the "layering" process of a story. Loved your description of "Onion Boy," too! Thanks for sharing! :)




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