Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Donger Need Food - Back to School with John Hughes

Unless you cut the mass media umbilical cord this week, you know writer/director John Hughes died. Raise your hand if the news brought a flood of images to your mind and quotes to your lips. Okay, slowly bring your hand down and pretend to brush your hair behind your ear. Otherwise, people are going to think you're a freak smelling your armpit. I know, humor and death shouldn't share a bunk-bed. But dang it, John Hughes was funny.And all about character. And honest at the core. His movies never descended into pure parody. RIP and thanks for the delight.

Who can forget in Planes Trains and Automobiles how a cash-strapped Del (John Candy) tries to score a room at the Braidwood Inn by doing the Vanna White with his Casio watch? And jeesh, I heard "Donger need food" from Sixteen Candles at least a bazillion times this weekend. They're pretty small bits, but sticky bits. Burrs. By the time you walk out of Hughes movie, you're covered in the things.

Okay, I need more burrs in my writing. I've overdosed on GMC. Plotted my pants into a wad. Fixed the POV shifts (oops, I almost typed a naughty word instead of shift). But I need more burrs. More really memorable moments. So, who better to study than Hughes. His movies seem to work mostly by flinging one after another of those prickly suckers at your socks.

I watched Sixteen Candles with an eye to how Hughes does it. To start, he uses a normal character to keep things grounded. Everybody identifies with Samantha, the nice but not va-va-voom looking girl, who wants the super-hot hunk (the premise of every romance). Her life is populated by the usual assortment of stereotypical characters -- jocks, geeks, grandparents, the foreign exchange student. Not much of a story here. Every agent in the world would pinch her nose at this one. Ready. Aim. Recycle pile.

But Hughes plays up the absurdities of his supporting cast. The jocks all look alike. The geek not only dances like a spaz, but he's so self-involved he doesn't notice when Sam ditches him. The grandmother "feels up" Sam's budding chest and the bathroom's still unusable 30 minutes after grandpa was reading in it. The foreign exchange student, who seems merely blandly strange at first, turns out to be a sex machine.

How these people inflict their weirdness on Sam is what makes the movie and its point -- a teen feels the whole world, except the guy she has a crush on, is just kind of stupid. We believe and enjoy it all because Sam is so real. Never once, even during the over-the-top party scene where the rich boy's house gets trashed, did I grumble "yeah, right."

My writing isn't comedy, but I do think there's a lesson here about not being afraid to use stereotype to advantage in building character. Heck, Jane Austen is the all-time mistress of it.

Release your inner Donger. Give him food.

So, do you have a favorite John Hughes memory?


Marilyn Baron said...

Okay, do you want the good news or the bad news first?

Bad News: I am one of those who must be living in a cave, because not only did I not know who John Hughes was, I didn't know he was dead.

I didn't see Planes, Trains and Automobiles and although I did see Sixteen Candles I don't remember that much about it.

Now for the Good News: Your writing was so good, it spoke to me and now I will go out and rent Sixteen Candles and see it through your eyes.

So, thank you for opening my eyes and for a great post.

And I agree with your feelings about humor. I try to use it in everything I write.

Marilyn Baron

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Anna,

I saw Planes, Trains and Automobiles and I saw Sixteen Candles. Both very good movies. When I first heard that Hughes had died, I wasn't familiar with him...didn't know what he had done in his lifetiime...but I've been coming on board as I hear people revere his work.

He contributed a lot and left a legacy...just what we all want to do with our writing. We should take notes from his contributions and aspire to do likewise.

Great post.


Anna Steffl said...

Good morning Marilyn.

Sixteen Candles isn't Hughes best film. Its a teen confection. But I enjoy it because its a character based movie for a teen audience -- no big explosions or murders. My kids (13 & 15, girl and boy) were riveted.

Some people are really offended by the Donger and a scene in which the handsome love interest turns his current girlfriend over to a geek because it seems to condone date rape. Well...maybe. But I never took it that way. This is a fantasy with a real character at the center.

Hope you're having some coffee like I am.


Anna Steffl said...

Hey Sandy,

Even as an imdb junkie, I was surprised how much Hughes did. His writing creds are huge. He was on board for an amazing number of big comedies.

And, I'd never have recognized him in a million years. Such is the fate of writers. Mostly, I think they're good with it ;-)

Tami Brothers said...

Great job, Anna! I didn't know John Hughes either but I do know Sixteen Candles and Planes Trains and Automobiles...

I can even here Donger saying, "Automobilllllll. No automorbilllllll...." I see the scene in my head and hear it when he does the splashing noise of how the automobile ended up in the lake...grin... One of my fav scenes.

Thanks for sharing this. I will definitely be grabbing a copy of this movie and watching it again with Hughes in mind.

Have a great day!


Anna Steffl said...

Hi Tami!

Donger stole every scene he was in. I heard somewhere that when he auditioned, he spoke in such convincing fragmented English he'd learned from some Korean friends that no one knew he was faking it.

Have a great morning.


Maxine Davis said...


I really enjoyed your post. Haven't seen many of them, but Wierd Science and The Breakfast Club are two of my favorites and, of course, Pretty in Pink.

Thanks for reminding me of his movies. Seeing a movie like that always makes me want to write.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


I thought I was woefully inadequate in the area of Hughes, but I did find a film he did which is a family staple: Christmas Vacation. Not one of my personal favorites, but my hubby and my father can actually bond over this one, and I have to confess it's growing on me.

I'll have to watch Sixteen Candles, and we'll watch The Breakfast Club, another of hubby's favorites, in memorial. I remember not caring for Pretty in Pink at all, but I think I was preteen and not quite able to identify with the angst yet.

Thanks for the food for thought. Xmas vacation is FULL of the burrs you described, so I look forward to finding some examples in his other work.


Cyrano said...

Love, love, love this post!!
Plus I'm a huge John Hughes fan. 16candles, Breakfast club, Wierd Science, Ferris Bueller's Day off -jeesh, the man was a comedic and character God.
So this post was a double whammy for me, you're writing - the bomb, John Hughes reference - the shizzle.
I love how you said, "I need more burrs. More really memorable moments." Everyone needs really memorable moments in their writing. That's what makes reader want more of your work. Those moments are what keep a reader from putting your novel down.
I got alot from your post Anna and it made me smile because even thought Hughes is gone, scenes, memorable scenes from his movies will live on.
Have a great day,

Anna Steffl said...

Howdy Maxine --

I'm all over Pretty in Pink just because James Spader plays such a delicious villain.

Well, get writing. Rainy days are the best for it. All our noses should be red from the grindstone.

Anna Steffl said...


You're right that the Vacation movies, even more so than the teen flicks, are just one funky scene after another. The plots are pretty much shabby excuses to showcase Hughes' ability to construct character-driven comedy. Usually, it works pretty well -- and guys do love that stuff (except European Vacation, even my husband found it unwatchable).

Anna Steffl said...

Tamara -- I should have known you'd be a fan.

It would be such a cool feeling knowing that as an author something you've done will continue to touch people even after you're gone -- some part of yourself is enduring.

Linsey Lanier said...

Great post, Anna. Interesting insights. On the Break into Fiction 5 for 5 days (which I wish I had a hardcopy of, since it's gone now), Catherine Mann talked about creating characters with quirks. I have this definition in my notes: "quirk – a characteristic that makes a character unique and memorable."

Sounds like Hughes had a real handle on that. Thanks for pointing him out. I'm in the cave with Marilyn, but I am somewhat familiar with Sixteen Candles. I'll have to watch it again, too.

There's a nice article on Hughes in wikipedia that lists his movies. The one I'm most familiar with is "Home Alone." Great movie!


Anna Steffl said...

Hi Lindsey. Thanks for reading and commenting. People have such busy lives it is really touching that they take the time to check a blog...and comment. I always feel like I learn more from the comments that what I did in researching to write the blog.

The quirk thing definitely is what makes for interesting characters. Catherine Mann does do a great job with it, too, I've noticed.

The thing I think I learned from Hughes is how to economically do it with secondary characters. If you start with a stereotype, the reader already does most of the work creating the character. You just basically have to add the quirk. Makes it faster than trying to build these supporting roles from the ground-up -- then you also risk spending too much time on them. Not for use on every character, but you can get some real bang for the buck (and maybe even come up with a scene-stealer).

Susan May said...

You always have such interesting posts. I've seen all the Hughes movies mention. Not because I'm such a fan of his, but because they were always interesting, funny and relatable. Unfortantly, Christmas Vaction could be my family.

J Perry Stone said...

My God. Where do I begin???

Samantha in 16 Candles?

I was so totally bonkers over the pretty boy, I cried for two years. That movie transformed my own personal tragedy into a comedy.

Breakfast Club? Who didn't love the bad boy? That was my first real examination of what makes a hot guy hot.

Unpredictability and such a strong sense of self, you don't care what others think.

Weird Science? Did Hughes do WS? I don't know, but I think so.

Seriously. Funniest dumb-ass flick ever.

Pretty in Pink?

You know, I'm seeing a pattern here, just like you said:

"the nice but not va-va-voom looking girl, who wants the super-hot hunk (the premise of every romance)."

I think the power of Hughes is that his humor captured the male population while the world of what might be possible touched the girls.

I grew up on Hughes. He spoke directly to MY generation.

And I still see myself as Samantha.

Fabulous post, Anna.

Anna Steffl said...


Your family lives Christmas Vacation? I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Bad thing if it's the Chevy Chase sing-along.

Have a great evening & thanks for the comment.

Anna Steffl said...

Julianne --

Weird Science -- yup. He wrote it.

You are so right that the boys loved the humor and the girls honed in on the fantasy aspect. It's why his films had such a universal appeal. That's hard to pull off. You don't see it much these days. Why can't I write a book like that? Grumble, grumble.

Pretty in Pink -- LOL -- I loved the bad guy Steff. But I totally identified when she made her own dress and was funky cool. Loved the bad dude in BC.

Walt M said...

My favorite is Ferris Bueler's Day Off. However, didn't John Hughes also do the Thriller video?

Carol Burnside said...

I'm with Marilyn. Never heard of the guy, didn't know he was dead, but your post was interesting. I've also enjoyed some of his movies.

I don't know if I've ever seen either Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Sixteen Candles, but I've seen Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Breakfast Club several times.