Writing Advice – Craft & Process

Collecting the posts I’ve written about the craft and process of writing

Getting Shit Done is Always Subjective

If there’s a pattern in my writing routine that remains unassailable, it’s this: Thursdays are the hardest days of the week. It’s rare that I get a day where writing is the sole thing I’m doing – there is always thesis work, and meetings, things that need doing for GenreCon and spending time with my girlfriend – but Thursdays are inevitably the day where the balance tips towards not-writing. It’s the day I spend six hours at work, the evening in which I will go game with my friends, and it’s often the evening where my girlfriend and I will abscond to the local sushi place for pre-game dinner.

On Thursdays, I get stuff written before work. Yesterday, I managed about two thousand words, which is a pretty fucking efficient day given there was only about two hours of writing time before I had to jump on a train. It just felt like a failure, in many respects, because the rest of the working week I can usually manage twice as many words before my brain grinds to a halt and refuses to do more. Everything else that gone done in that day didn’t register, because my brain is focused on stories and deadlines and thinking through what needs to be done when.

Productivity is subjective. A year ago, getting two thousands words done on a work day would have seemed like a monumentally awesome thing. I would have given myself a mental high-five and been incredibly pleased with myself. Even a week ago, I would have nodded sagely and put the days productivity into context.

Instead, this week, I brooded on the lack of productivity for most of the day, and spent the commute home on an overcrowded train pondering the difficulties in telling the difference between a bad day, actual depression, and the feeling of being three-quarters of the way through writing a book and deciding everything is awful. Then I came home from gaming and dragged another thousand words out of my brain, because I’ve got projects and deadlines and gantt charts to follow and the book does not get any easier to write or any closer to finished if I’m not working on it.

I’ve written 14,699 words since Monday. I will get that up around 17,500 by the end of today, which means I’ve hit my targets for the week and can afford to take the weekend off to recharge the batteries and come back on Monday eager to be working again. By the end of the month I’ll have a thesis novella of my plate and will be searching for beta-readers for Project Beeman, then start brainstorming the second book in that particular novella series.

By every metric I use to measure what I’m doing, I am getting shit done. I am keeping projects on track and bringing them home, managing my time effectively. Subjectively yesterday felt like arse, but objectively I did exactly what I needed to do.

Which is why I have the metrics and plans, creating the hard edge I can use to measure things instead of trusting in my gut.

Feeling like you’ve got shit done is subjective as hell – the good days are rarely as good as you’re thinking and the bad days are rarely as bad. Data for its own sake is useful, but incomplete. Data within a context or timeline shows you progress your gut will ignore, which is what makes it worth tracking. My brain can tell me Thursday sucked all it wants, but the data I’m tracking tells me the things that got done kept my urgent projects on track, and the things I had to set aside had minor effects on my deadlines.

In short, it was a shitty day, but I did a pretty good job with it. I totally got shit done.

On Loving What You Write

New writers are often told to ignore the market and focus on writing what they love. It’s solid enough advice, for what it’s worth, but I think there’s a flipside to that. At some point, no matter what the project, you need to figure out how to love what you’re writing.

There are probably writers out there who can write a whole novel without coming to loathe or fear the manuscript, but I do not come across them all that often. What’s far more common are the conversations where doubt has seeped in, or an idea that was once exciting and shiny has grown worn down with use and the realities of sitting there and putting words on the page. Ideas move away from their Platonic ideal as you write them, because execution is harder than imagining. The set up of the first act is significantly more exciting than the delivering on that promise in the second and resolving it in the third.

My first attempt to write a novel suffered horribly because of this. I wrote four seperate first acts, pulling in fresh ideas without thinking through their resolution. The things I write today still struggle with the impulse. As I hit the second quarter of a book I start creating things that need to be excised from a story, tucked away for something else because they’re pulling focus.

I had to step back and focus on the thing that started it for me: why did I want to write this? Why did it seem fun?

I need to figure out how to love the project all over again, instead of asking it to be something it wasn’t meant to be.

The Black Dahlia

The first major sequence in James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia revolves around a boxing match between the protagonist, beat-cop Bucky Bleichert and his soon-to-be-partner Lee Blanchard. The fight takes place at the end of the fourth chapter, and it’s loaded with stakes: personal stakes, for Bleichert and his father; professional stakes, given his advancement in the police department is dependent on this fight; social stakes, since the bout is a ploy to garner public support for a bill that will earn the police department money; and, ultimately, big emotional stakes, because everything is in balanced against each other. A win on the personal side of things means tanking his professional advancement. He can have one, at the cost of the other.

So the entire fight is one big choice for Bleichert, where he figures out the kind of man he’s going to be for the rest of the book. It feels more intense than the climax of most novels, and you’re only 10% of the way through the book. It artisinal, in the old-school sense, where you can see the quality of the workmanship as a layperson, but you’re in awe of it if you know the details of what you’re looking at. You can see the labour that’s gone into the book.

It does this so well I basically read it, had a lie down, and contemplated giving up writing because…damn.

 

 

Crazier, Faster, Better

I started April full of confidence. I had a plan for a novella. Nothing important, just a goofy 40,000 words about dinosaurs and apocalypse and super-intelligent battle-orangutans that’s mostly being written to amuse a friend of mine. I knew could hit two thousand words a day, so I figured I’d get through a rough draft in the space of thirty days.

Now we’re nineteen days in and I’ve burned the entire draft to the ground so I can start over and build something better in the wreckage.

Not that I’m getting rid of the any of the goofy elements – there will still be dinosaurs and apocalypse and orangutans – but I wasn’t happy with the draft I was writing and desperately needed to change it. The voice didn’t fit. The plot was wrong. My 40,000 word novella draft was up around 30,000 words, and I was only just getting out of the first act. The middle act belonged to a completely different story (and, now, can go become that story without being hampered by the first act that didn’t fit).

I can usually tell when I’ve done something wrong with story structure because my entire life grinds to a halt. I get restless and anxious and eventually depressed. When I loose track of the plot, I literally lose the plot. That’s harder to navigate than it used to be, full of second-guessing. Am I junking this story because it’s not a good fit, or because my first response to a low is period do everything crazier, faster, better.

I do not plan stories well. I cannot figure out what I’m really writing until I’m down in there, among the words, figuring out where shit goes wrong. 

CS Pacat on how to rock the Aaron Sorkin approach to dialogue

I was going to show up here and write a long post about dialogue this evening, given that I’m rewriting a story where I’m trying to do things I don’t ordinarily do with dialogue, and that’s seeping into the new story I’m trying to draft.

Then I remembered that CS Pacat already has one of the most kick-ass posts about dialogue structures that I’ve seen on the web, so I’m just going to link to her post about manipulating topic patterns instead. Or, as it should be titled, a quick primer on how Aaron Sorkin does all those Aaron Sorkin things in dialogue.

Go forth and read, peeps. I’m going back to my story.

Some Thoughts On Theatre, Set Design, and a Moment of Disconnection

I went to see the recent Queensland Theatre Company production of Tartuffe over the weekend, but this is not a review of that show. My review would run very simply: incredible work, great fun, go and fucking see it. Even if you have no idea what Tartuffe is and why Moliere is a big deal.

Hell, especially if you don’t know why Moliere is a big deal.

But what I’m still noodling about on a Tuesday morning, three days after I saw the show, is a very small slice of the overall show: set design.

There’s been a run of QTC shows with incredible sets in the last twelve months. The set for last year’s The Odd Couple was an incredible piece of work, creating an apartment in the middle of the stage that allows for a lot of dynamic movement. The set for Tartuffe is equally incredible work: the rooms and balconies of a double-story mansion on a rotating stage, allowing for five different places where scenes can be set. A set that was rich in details, from the knick-knacks to the art hung up on t he walls, to placing of doors that allowed for multiple paths of entry and exit onto the stage.

It was a fantastic set, bringing a sense of realism to the staging. Really nice work.

And I spent the first half of the play wishing it wasn’t there.


Back in ye olden days, when I taught a more diverse range of writing that I do now, I spent a lot of time trying to wedge the following idea into people’s heads before they sat down to write scripts: film simulates, theatre suggests. When you’re looking at the toolkit you’ve got for telling stories in either medium, they’re important things to keep in mind.

What this translates into, when not speaking in pithy sound-bites, is the realisation that each of these mediums has a different toolkit for evoking reality. Film relies heavily on visual details – when you point a camera at something, it captures everything in the frame and provides a rich spectrum of details for the viewer to read the story against. If you’ve got the time and the budget, you can physically take your camera and your crew to a real place and capture the actual details of being in that place. It’s not as good as actually being there, and of necessity it’s still a crafted experience because there is an art to film-making and constructing meaning with the visual language of cinema, but the strength of film as a medium is its ability to simulate reality as a kind of near-exact photocopy.

Theatre doesn’t have that. Theatre is a storytelling medium that grew around it’s limitations, which include the physical limitations of the stage and the fact that the audience will only see the action from a single direction on any given viewing. A film camera may pick up on incidental objects in a particular location, but nothing exists on a stage unless it’s put there – and so the history of theatre is filled with a larger world being suggested or evoked by a single well-chosen object that serves as a metaphoric stand-in.

Or, to put it another way, in order to kill someone in the end of your film production of Hamlet without breaking the audiences sense of belief, you need some realistic looking swords, fight choreography, blood packs, and some clever camera work to make it all look fluid and real. Fuck that up, and the audience will get distracted by the feeling that there is something a little fake in your simulation.

In order to kill people at the end of your stage production of Hamlet, you can use a stick and a length of red ribbon and everyone will still be on the edge of their seats.

You can evoke an awful lot with very little in the theatre. That is its strength. It can also be its weakness, because everything you put on the stage takes on more meaning. It’s a queue to the audience about what they should be expecting and what’s important in the performance.


And here is where I had problems with the set for Tartuffe – the first thing you see is this big, elaborate set mimicking a modern beach-side mansion.

The second thing you see is a bunch of well-dressed cast members drinking and dancing to techno as the stage rotates around, giving you a glimpse of the even more impressive sets on the far side of the turntable.

And then the dialog starts, and Moliere was a playwright active in the late 1600s. This particular translation of Tartuffe involves a lot of rhyming couplets full of clever wordplay, but it also keeps some of the particularly anachronistic aspects of the original. Which probably works fine, if you are familiar with

Moliere and know to expect that from the moment the curtain goes up. But if you don’t…

Well, he cognitive dissonance starts early, and stays around for a long, long time. There’s a wait while the play teaches you how to read what’s going on, instead of using the set to transition you into that a little more smoothly.

And after seeing Tartuffe on Saturday night, I spent Sunday at the powerhouse watching a cabaret production of Angela Carter’s The Lady in the House of Love, which used a single chair and an ornate wooden stage as its setting and used them to evoke rose-choked ruins, the countryside, an French army base, and a more. It worked spectacularly well, because everything on stage meant something and played to the strengths of theatre, using very little to create an awful lot.


None of this is intended as a slight against the Tartuffe production in any way – it remains a fantastic set and a fantastic production, and I’d recommend seeing it if you’re in the Brisbane area. I’m am focusing on a minor quibble that bugged me far more than the people I was there with, and I will freely admit that I am a grumpy theatre goer who objects to many, many things that are done on stage.

But I’m still mulling over this particular feeling of disconnection because its a useful reminder as a writer: prose, like theatre, is reliant on metaphor and suggestion to build its setting and contextualise the action that takes place there.

It’s particularly important for me this week, as I’m trying to evoke a much larger world in the novel that I’m writing with a couple of very small scenes. My first impulse is always going bigger, but bigger isn’t necessarily better here. In a metaphor-driven medium, evoking the right detail will mean more than evoking a dozen others that aren’t necessarily a good fit for the story you’re trying to tell.

And with that, I’m going to finish my coffee and get cracking on the novel for a bit.

The Sweet, Seductive Song of October Productivity

I have spent the last few weeks agreeing to do things, comfortable in the knowledge that time when I would actually have to do said things was comfortably distant in the future. Except now the future is almost here, and this will be my last week where all my writing time is actually devoted to writing-related tasks.

I tend to forget that October is a good writing month. The weather is pleasant and there is a kind of lull in the yearly commitments, a quietness between the festival chaos of September and the beginning of the end-of-year chaos that comes in November. Every year October comes around and I do a whole bunch of work and I think, well, this is nice, it would be great if this was all year round. And then I start making plans, because everything seems so achievable.

Then November reminds me that those plans are foolish, and December derails them entirely.

It doesn’t stop me from making plans.

Two years ago, around this time, I got it into my head to try and write 600,000 words in the space of the year. I largely did it to prove a point to a friend of mine, who believed it wasn’t a sustainable pace for a writer, and I failed rather spectacularly. I ended up falling short by a good 220,000 words, and after finally getting around to editing some of the short fiction drafts I wrote that year, the 380,000 words I did do weren’t terribly good.

Which…I’m okay with, mostly, given that I was either feeling asleep at the keyboard ’cause the sleep apnea hadn’t been diagnosed yet, or basically fighting my own brain twenty-four seven ’cause I hadn’t yet figured out that maybe I was a depressed.

Still, I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and I really don’t like leaving a point unproven. The massive burst of productivity that comes with October has started whispering its siren song to me, pointing out that November is coming…

 

Trust in the Process

I write rough drafts in my notebooks these days. It gets me away from my perfectionist impulses, lets me embrace the idea of scribbling out a crude and ugly scene that will get fixed up when I type it into the computer.

Except I don’t really look at the notebooks when it comes time to sit at the keyboard. I just sit and rewrite the entire story, based on the rough beats I remember from the notebook. Everything else is basically written anew, fleshing out as I go.

It feels inefficient. I keep sitting down and wondering if it’s time to go back to the computer for everything, or if its time to try doing rougher sketches in the notebook rather than trying to write full scenes.

It feels inefficient, but it’s not. Notebooks are the perfect place to write that messy, ugly zero draft. They’re the perfect place to dump this stuff out there, figure out what the story isn’t so I can start paying attention to the thing that it probably is.

And the best chance of figuring out if it really is inefficient isn’t halfway through the draft. It’s when I’m done, and I’m starting a brand new project, and I can set up new habits around it.

I’ve built my habits for a reason, turned them into a process that seems to be working. My brain doesn’t trust that, but then, my brain is full of bad wiring and treats writing like an antidepressant.

I have a bunch of rules to live by these days: sleep is non-negotiable; always order the pork belly.

Increasingly, I’m adding this one to the list: trust in the process; the brain doesn’t get a vote.

Working with Time I Actually Have, Not the Time I’d Like To Have

It’s seven fifteen in the morning and I’m in the Wintergarden food-court, writing. My phone is counting down the minutes, my pomodoro app ticking softly to mark each passing second. I’m seated amid the empty tables, notebooks splayed out in front of me. There is weirdness on the walls, interior design done with light and shadow instead of wallpaper or paint.

In an hour and a half, I head off to the day job. There are one hour and fifteen minutes of usable writing time between now and then, and I’ve got a list of things that need to get done today.

  1. A) This blog post.
  2. B) The next scene in my current work in progress.

In the five minutes between writing bursts, I get to tweet or check Facebook or contemplate this question: what is the best use of my writing time right now? What is the opportunity cost of focusing on A, instead of B?

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU REALLY HAVE FOR WRITING EACH WEEK?

There is a recurring obsession with time, when it comes to writing advice. You hear it over and over: set down an hour a day and write, guard it like a lioness protecting her cubs. Treat your writing time as sacred, and turn off the internet while you work.

It’s a useful starting point, but it has its limitations. For one thing, it’s focused on the act of writing, not the business of maintaining a writing career.

For another thing, if you’re the kind of person who wants to write for a living, that one hour a day probably isn’t going to build your career as fast as you’d like.

Because writing isn’t just writing, after a certain point – it’s redrafting and dealing with edits on your work; it’s running correspondence and dealing with the minutia of a small business; it’s tracking deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects that people ask you to get involved in. It’s teaching classes or doing talks, writing guest posts and doing promotion for your work. Networking and being a good part of your peer community.

And if you practice that one-hour-a-day-is-sacred by rote, you can lose track of the lesson it’s trying to teach you – your time is a resource. It needs to be deployed wisely.

I am not wise with my time. Not the way I should be.

I did some calculations, a few weeks back, which brought this realisation home. When I put my writing plans together, I look at time as an abundant resource. There is always time there, and I can always find more if I need it.

It’s not hard to see how this got started: I work part-time. I have two dedicated write clubs every week. I have weekends I can fill with words, if I’m so inclined. I have hours and hours and hours, if I need them.

Which means, of course, I don’t use much time at all, because everything can be deferred until later if it has to be. There is always time tomorrow. I can always do better, if I didn’t get enough done today.

I tend to think and plan my writing projects aspirationally, rather than realistically

I also have nine months of data about my writing habits. Weeks and weeks of information tracked through rescue time, plus a whole stack of handwritten notes recorded in my bullet journal. Those informed me that my writing time was no-where near as abundant as I thought, and identified the blind spots where I’m losing hours.

So I sat down and looked at the hours I spend working every week. Not just the total, but the quantity of time spent doing each individual thing.

Then I looked at my weekly schedule and asked the hard question: if I treated time as a finite resource, how much time could I realistically devote to my whole writing career week to week?

How much time did I really have for writing, in order to get things done?

The answer was 21 hours, assuming I paid attention and monitored my time.

And when I looked at my to-do list, I was trying to cram way more work than that into the week to come. I approached my schedule aspirationally. I planned for the time I thought I had, rather than the reality in front of me.

ASPIRATIONAL THINKING IS A PROBLEM

When thinking aspirationally about your time, there’s no concession to the realities of living your life.

In my aspirational schedule of what might happen in the coming week, there’s never a bad day or a knotty problem with a project that takes longer to sort out than I think; there’s never a night when I go hit the movies or catch up with friends; there’s no weekend where I flake out and watch wrestling, because my sleep is disrupted and wrestling is my escape. I am always writing, always moving forward, doing the next thing.

When you’re thinking aspirationally, like your time is abundant, It’s easy to give up time now, because I will be perfect tomorrow.

In my aspirational schedule I never really need to clean the house or do laundry or wash the dishes. I certainly never need to iron, which is a chore that catches me off-guard ever week now that I have do it again.

In my aspirational schedule, I can chase down every possible project and do everything I want. And I am perpetually feeling lie there’s something left undone, and everything I do is making me fall behind.

REAL HOURS

Here’s how I came up with the 21 hours for writing jobs.

In real terms, there are only 168 hours in a week. 56 of them are spent asleep, since sleep is no longer negotiable for me. If I miss a few hours, I pay for it, and I’ll lose more writing time than I gain by staying up late.

Bad things happen to my brain chemistry when I don’t sleep enough – both RescueTime and my Bullet Journal showed that – and nothing will cause aspirational time to become wasted time faster than depression. My ability to make smart choices is basically gone.

So, we’re down to 112 hours. Now 21.45 of those are spent at the day job. 14, more or less, are spent getting ready for the day or for bed, showering and shaving or getting where I need to go. 7 hours are spent reading every night, before I go to sleep, which could be qualified as a “writing” job, but has more to do with good sleep habits than anything else.

That’s over half my weekly allotment of hours gone before I pick up a pen, and none of it can be cannibalised to get some extra writing time.

Spending time with my family? 4 hours a week, on average. Catching up with friends? 6 hours or so, depending on how write club breaks down and whether I’m meeting to catch up. Watching movies or TV? Lets call it 3 hours, if I’m paying attention to the way I use time. A whole weekend, if I’m not and I just let Netflix autoplay.

Now I’m willing to give some of those things – I don’t need to jam two days of Netflix into my week all that often – but a lot of it isn’t something I want to give up. My parents are getting older and my dad isn’t well, so the time I spend with the family means a lot right now. Hanging out with friends is a necessary thing, right up there with getting enough sleep every night, if I want to remain on an even keel.

When I start with that 168 hours and start taking out all the stuff that needs to be done, that large expanse of aspirational time looks considerably smaller. And so, I end up with:

21 HOURS

That’s it. 21 hours for all the tasks associated with my writing career, while still having sufficient time to clean and bathe and work and see other people. 21 hours, and that largely means working seven days a week and aggressively searching out writing time.

Here’s the other problem with aspirational thinking: it doesn’t take into account everything that needs to happen within those 21 hours. In my head, if I don’t think about it, that’s twenty one hours of pure writing time. It doesn’t take into account the redrafting and dealing with edits; the correspondence and the minutia of running a small business; the tracking of deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects.

If someone asks, are you available to do this, my first response is to say yes and assume there is time to get things done.

When you approach your business like that, 21 hours disappears incredibly quickly.

Let’s be clear: that 21 hours is a privilege, and it add up to a hell of a lot over the course of a year. But getting those 21 hours means staying on top of things. Even with four days a week at home, it means aggressively clearing space in my schedule. It means getting up at 6 AM and jamming an hour of half of writing at the food court before I head to the day-job. It means hammering out some seven-hour writing days on Saturday, if I want a half-day off on Sunday to do lunch with friends.

You can’t do that if you’re not paying attention to the hours you’ve got, always thinking about what you might be able to do in a week if you really had too.

And this is where I’m now: 21 hours is the realistic hours I can devote to my writing career each week. Not just the writing – the whole damn career. It was a sobering thing to realise, because it meant figuring out the best ways to use it and giving up what might be possible and focusing on what usually is. When I look at a goal that I’ve blithely put down, say finish a novel by the end of the year or write five blog posts a week, there is context around how those things get done.

And there is context around the things that need to get cut.

When you focus on how much time you’ve got, you start paying more attention to how it gets filled. Drafting five scenes on my work in progress, moving the rough draft forward? That’s a good 10 hours of time every week, just for a crappy zero-draft.

Plotting out new scenes? Two hours a week to come up with a sequence of five or six scenes, then sketching it out well enough to write it when the time comes.

Redrafting and making scenes that don’t suck? Another seven hours or so, and that’ll move at a slower pace than the handwritten drafts. Email? An hour a week, just to stay on top of things. A relatively straightforward blog post like this? About two hours, all up, from draft to redraft to posting it online.

Spending a few hours setting this up and tracking it has proven to be a real useful thing for me. Nothing about time sits in the realm of abundance anymore. Anything I do gets balanced against the things that won’t get done as a result.

Is my desire to blog six times a week worth the nine hours of writing time? Do I want to devote more than one-third of my productive time to blogging, or would I be better served writing stories or working on the novel?

It isn’t always fun. Working with real hours makes it easy to see where the focus should go, but damn, it still hurts to do it. Because it means giving up things that feel a lot like work, simply because there’s not enough time to do those and get the things that need to happen done.

But what it gets me is well and truly worth it. Being honest about my time is incredibly hard, but I can prioritise the things that need to get done and distribute my hours accordingly. I can devote two thirds of my weekly hours to writing and rewriting, distribute the rest as necessary for the tasks that are more about maintaining the career rather than moving it forward.

More importantly, when those 21 hours are done, I ca be confident that I’ve done enough. I can fuck off and enjoy wrestling or a movie or hanging out with my family, certain that I am there rather than feeling haunted by the things that probably aren’t getting done.

Tracking the 21 hours, making decisions about how they’re used, means being aware of the fundamental truth of writing in the age of the internet: things take the time they take. You have to pick the things that are most important and give them the lion’s share of your attention and your time.

Creed and the Subtle Build of Stakes

I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Creed last night, and immediately started thinking about what a remarkable film it is. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because the inimitable Grant Watson has already written the best review of the film you’re going to see. So good, in fact, that I immediately went back and re-watched bits of the film that he talks about so I could appreciate them all over again.

But from a writing point of view, I do have things to add, because there are things that Creed does that are worth learning from.

In this case, it’s a film of enormously subtlety, with a script of enormous subtlety. It isn’t afraid to set things up, then let them pay off without you noticing.

Case in point: There is a scene, early in the first act, where our protagonist Adonis Johnson tells his mother, Mary-Anne Creed, that he plans to be a full-time boxer. She immediately tries to talk him out of it. “Do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs because he couldn’t walk?” she asks. “How many times I had to wipe his ass, because he couldn’t use his hands?”

It seems like a throw-away series of question, three seconds of dialogue that demonstrates the dangers of boxing and establishing the stakes. And they do that, admirably, but they also do more, because both of those questions and the way they are phrased set up stakes for things that happen later in the film in ways you’re not even thinking about as a regular audience member, because they immediately connect Adonis Johnson to the two most important people he meets in the second act.

The first question – do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs – is all about Mary-Ann Creed’s history with her husband. It’s a warning, yes, but it’s also a testament to the connection between her and her husband. It’s about the past, and shared experience, and one that only happens because the two of them are bonded.

Then the second act of the film introduces our B-Plot: the beginning of a surrogate father-and-son relationship between Adonis Johnson and an aging Rocky Balboa. And while the thing that lays Rocky low in this story isn’t boxing, there is a particularly loaded moment in the finale that involves Johnson carrying his father figure up a flight of stairs, and it’s incredible.

The film never hits you over the head with this. It doesn’t actually care if you notice or not, ‘cause that stair scene will make you feel if you’ve got a goddamn heart of stone, but the resonance sings through the movie.

The second question – about losing the use of his hands – proves to be just as big a set-up. One of the first people Johnson meets when he hits Philadelphia is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a young musician with a degenerative hearing condition that will eventually take her hearing. She explains it during the pair’s first not-really-a-date, teaching Johnson the one piece of sign language she well and truly remembers in preparation for the date. Johnson mimics the sign, and they bond, the whole love-interest vibe sealed.

And it’s a beautiful moment, because even though the film never touches on it again, the threat of what losing his hands could really mean for Adonis Johnson’s future is immediately contextualised and given an external metaphor.Of course, that metaphor is also a musician committed to following her dreams today, before the inevitable happens,which makes her simultaneously a warning and a cheerleader urging the plot forward.

I’ve got an incredible amount of admiration for the layers in this film. Now either of these things would have been unbearable if they had attention called towards them. It would have seemed schmaltzy and sentimental, drawing away from the other parts of the film.

But because they are inserted into the script, and used with a deft hand, the viewer is free to make the connections themselves and lose nothing if they do not. It’s a little thing that pays off if you choose to do a closer reading, and it shows the level of control and craft that’s gone into every aspect of the film.

It’s a technique worth stealing, when you get the chance.