Next week is the final regular session for my workshop at Christendom College this semester. (There’s one more session, which amounts to a pizza party the day before finals start.) I gave my students a choice of topics for the last two lectures, and they chose “Writing the Opposite Gender” and “Hooking the Reader.” The first was last week, and the second is next week.
Shocking even myself, I started doodling up my lecture notes today, and a familiar phrase went through my head. It’s a line from an old TV movie from 2000 that’s stuck with me as I gradually taught myself to write. “You’re starting your story again,” said the Master Storyteller. “You need to hook your audience again.”
The movie in question is a two-part Hallmark miniseries, Arabian Nights. It’s my second-favorite Hallmark Entertainment TV movie (the top spot going to Leprechauns, which is completely different from the horror movie with a similar title), but I’d only ever seen it once. That’s how strong it was and how much it resonated with me.
The movie starts out with basically the same setup as the framing tale for the classic Thousand and One Arabian Nights collection: a sultan, driven to the edge of madness by the betrayal of his first wife, won’t let any other wife have the opportunity to do the same. In the original, the sultan has already executed a thousand wives, but in this movie there has only been one, his first sultana, who tried to murder him.
In this version, by the law of his late father, he must take another wife soon, or the kingdom goes to his traitorous brother. Caught between two extremes, each powered by an obsessive fear of further betrayal, he concocts a desperate plan: to marry one of his concubines, and then execute her the following day.
And so we meet Scheherezade; as in the original, she is the vizier’s daughter, and she volunteers to be the sultan’s wife in the hopes of saving the sultan. Unlike in the original, she has been constantly visiting a master storyteller in the marketplace, who in key parts of the movie gives her advice on how to continue. She discovers on her first night that storytelling is harder than it looks, and becomes uncertain about her chances. Sultan Shahryar is suspicious, and keeps calling in his chief executioner before changing his mind.
Gradually, though, Scheherazade’s stories touch him, leading him away from his madness as he contemplates their meanings. As the master storyteller says in the beginning of the movie, “People need stories more than bread itself. They teach us how to live, and why.” (If any of my workshop students are reading this, you might recognize that line from our first session.)
Unlike in the original framing story, this version culminates in a struggle between Shahryar and his evil brother that shows how each of the stories he has heard over the last week have changed how he views the world. They have sparked his imagination, and each one gave him clarity, focus, and courage.
As I said, I was thinking about it while making notes, and on a whim I decided to look it up again. It’s not streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but I did find it uploaded on YouTube. I decided to see if I could find the master storyteller’s scene, but the next thing I knew, it was an hour later. In other words, I went looking for a scene about hooking your audience, and good hooked into watching a three-hour movie. That’s some good irony right there.
I highly recommend this movie just as a movie, but especially if you’re looking to be a storyteller yourself. Having just watched it for the first time in fourteen years, I can see all over again why it’s stuck with me all this time. Fourteen years ago, I was writing as a hobby, trying to figure out how it was done and not finding any good books on the subject. Then I watched this movie on TV, and it resonated with me in a way I hadn’t appreciated until this morning.
If I ever get the chance to teach a full writing course, credit or otherwise, I might just have to work in a movie night. It’s simply that good.