The $30* Four Hour Writing Workshop

… when you throw in the popcorn.

Not all novelists are movie fans, and some don’t recognize or appreciate the parallels between what we do compared to what screenwriters do with the same objective.

Story is story.  As novelists we also provide the lighting, set design, and the musical score… because nothing says background music than the way we open and execute our scenes with the voice of our narrative.

I contend that all serious authors of commercial genre fiction are missing the boat if they don’t consider the majority of mainstream films (with the caveat that there are certainly more than a few that don’t qualify, especially screwball comedies and sequels) as an example of storytelling at its finest.

In fact, if you know what to look for, and if you view and study such movies from a story development and narrative perspective – precisely the same stuff you hope to find at writing workshops – you can get as much value from your two hours in front of a screen as you can from most writing books and conferences.

Of course, that’s not really possible if you don’t know what, specifically, to look for.  When the guy from your car pool hears an Aaron Sorkin monologue he might hear blah blah blah, but you… you hear poetry and the heart of character itself.

Just as a semester as an intern in the O.R. can bring a medical textbook to relevant life for a med student, writing craft books and workshops may be precisely what equips us to gain writerly value from watching a movie from within the context of craft.  What you see can cement your understanding and validate your acceptance of basic principles of craft, perhaps as much or more than reading the scenes in a novel.

Two such richly-crafted films are out now, waiting to show us how it’s done.

Both films are a clinic in the craft of storytelling.  My hope for you this week is… watch and learn.  (Use the links to both films to learn more about the story, it’s journey to the screen, and production notes.)

The first film is The Revenent, which just tonight won Golden Globes for Best Dramatic Film, Best Director (Alejandro G. Inarritu) and Best Actor (Leo DiCaprio).

The story… I’ll leave that to you, to preview as you will.  The point for us, as writers, is to see how the story is handled, in what order, in what context, in terms of narrative and exposition, as well as how things are setup and foreshadowed, and then put into play and later resolved.  These are the same challenges we face every day staring at the blank page… but here they are perfectly demonstrated as working dramatic arcs that will light the observing writer’s creative mind on fire.

The value here for us, as writers, beginning with the dramatic concept itself, is to notice how the Act I/Part 1 setup launches immediately with deep dramatic implications, while firmly grounding the film within a thematic context of racism.

The entire story is set-up in that opening sequence of scenes, defining motivations for the key characters within a context of racial hatred, and then quickly, beginning a descent into the darkness of what quickly surfaces as the primary dramatic arc, with a thematic focus that gives the story its dark emotional resonance.

Notice, too, that this is not an arbitrary dramatic launching point.  This is consistent with movies — a novelist can view each and every scene and ask why, relative to content and placement… and the answer will always be there, easily and clearly defined.  There are no pantsers in the movie business — we novelists own that risky process of story development — everybody involved knows how each scene connects to the next, and how it all plays within the macro context of a clear vision (via the script itself) of where it all is headed.

And then, the story’s three major structural milestones – the First Plot Point, the Midpoint and the Second Plot Point — are unmissable, with perfect placement and dramatic depth that flip the story into a higher gear, not to mention veer it toward a shifted hero’s path… all of it becoming a clinic in these essential elements of story architecture.

The other amazing film, also out now…

… offers a completely different story experience.  Youth stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as seniors vacationing at a swanky Swiss resort.  Caine is a famous but retired orchestra conductor and composer, while Keitel is a fading film director taking his cast and crew on a retreat to nail the ending of the film they are on the cusp of shooting.

Geriatric and emotional hijinks ensue, as pasts and futures collide in unexpected ways.

As a writing workshop for you this story leans more to a literary sensibility, with elements of mysticism and imagination applied within an episodic narrative sequence (showing you how to pull off such a structure in your story), yet leading toward a powerhouse of emotion in the final act with amazing creative courage and beauty.

While reliable generic structure and character arc offer us models and targets to get us there, thematic power is more elusive as a sum that exceeds the parts themselves, and as such is almost impossible to teach.

Youth shows you how it’s done.

Because while hard to reduce to a roster of narrative principles, it is possible to observe, and to feel.  When it penetrates your own writer’s heart you will find yourself clear on how to summon these essences within your own story, how to move your readers toward Epiphany and revelation.  That’s what this film does so well, and in doing so becomes an opportunity for writers to immerse in this clinic in the power of thematic characterization.

Give these two films a try, then come back here to weigh in. I promise you, the price of the ticket will become an investment with far great value relative to the craft of advancing storytelling in any genre.

They will make you want to write.  Not just the next thing, but something amazing that reaches for a higher bar, and with an expanded tool chest of ways to get there.

What films have you seen that helped inspire you or expand your tool chest as a novelist?

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book “Story Engineering” was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the “#27 Best Books on Writing,” in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

25 thoughts on “The $30* Four Hour Writing Workshop

  1. There’s another Michael Caine movie, with Robert Duval, SECONDHAND LIONS, that is similar, it sounds like, given your set up for YOUTH: two older brothers, uncles to an “abandoned” nephew, raising him somewhere in the Midwest.
    It, too, is episodic, but well connected, with the contrasting back story of the brothers as young men and the boy’s adventures (if that’s the right word), growing up with these curmudgeons, interspersed and with enough action to keep the story moving and the audience engaged (and with a pretty cool twist at the end [that’s all I’ll say 🙂 ]).

    Then there’s the Duval flick, with Kevin Costner, OPEN RANGE, that, while a “typical western” (complete with gunfight on Main Street), sets up the first point quickly, introduces the characters without info-dumping, yet gives their back stories as needed without slowing the story flow.

    Needless to say, the DVD’s are in the collection

    • Thanks George. I just saw a recent 60 Minutes episode in which they interview Caine… if you have On Demand I highly recommend it. They go over a few of the 180 films on his resume, and talk at length about this new one. Thanks for checking in.

  2. I’ve studied a number of movies to see why they work, sometimes to see why two similar movies reveal that one is so much better than the other, e.g., The Net with Sandra Bullock is not as good as Will Smith’s Enemy of the State, in my opinion… in that case because The Net tells too much, while EOTS has a similar theme but doesn’t throw it in your face.

    Will definitely do my homework and watch the two you recommend.

    • You’re onto the Great Secret of studying craft using movies… finding what makes them work, or not, even when the premise itself is nonetheless compelling. Hope you enjoy The Revenent and Youth, betting you will.

  3. Thanks for the two recommendations, Larry. I’m a big fan of movies but was going to pass on the Revenent because it seemed so much like a “guys movie” – but your recommendation paired with the win last night (and this director also won last year for Birdman) has changed my mind. My husband will be so happy! Youth hasn’t hit Milwaukee yet but I’d seen the previews and it looked intriguing. And who can beat a writing class that includes popcorn!

    • Guys should watch “chick flicks” and women should watch “guys’ movies”… when the guy and the women are writers. Much to learn, even from stories that don’t work. Every film is a workshop, if you let it be. Best of luck to you!

  4. I immediately thought of the show Scorpion. I know we’ve discussed that Art Holcomb was on the launch team, which is why it’s perfectly structured. However, when I was writing my latest thriller, Wins of Mayhem, I kept this show in mind. Not only the milestones but each scene’s cause and affect. There’s not one scene in any of the episodes that doesn’t work; setting up the next or paying off the previous. Even though I first learned this in Story Engineering, seeing it in action helped to reinforce just how powerfully it works.

    • It’s so fun to go deep into a series you love and watch it play to its strengths. I just finished Jessica Jones (season 1, on Netflix), which is a huge concept that delivers twelve little films to feast on… brilliant. Scorpion is a huge concept, too, and each week does the same. Glad you’re having fun with this!

  5. I saw the film “Coma” when it first came out in 1978, long before I started writing fiction. However, at the time, I remember noting how streamlined and effective I found it, how every aspect added to the suspense–the acting, the tight focus, the horrific implications.

    • “Coma” is one of my favorite craft films. Cook reportedly studied over 200 medical novels (guessing there weren’t many structure-oriented craft books back then) to see how they were built and what made them tick, and ended up with a model for modern story structure, one that repeats itself in nearly every modern thriller. “Streamlined and effective” is exactly right… and the point of structure, when done properly. A great “watch and learn” film, and the novel, as well.

  6. Larry, in my opinion, a great example of a perfectly written movie, and one that can be studied for ages, is BACK TO THE FUTURE. It is extremely complex with a full range of characters, and yet so easy to follow. The viewer is never confused or lost. The writers, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, managed to deliver a truckload of threads and then tie each one up with a solid, believable knot of viewer satisfaction. Watch it from a writer’s viewpoint and I guarantee you’ll learn more that the price of entry.

    • I love “Back to the Future” as well. Think how many times that story has been referenced, re-done in a new suit of cloths… so fun and, as you say, so much to learn. Have you seen Zemeckis’ new one, “The Walk?” Very creative, and a good clinic on one-note storytelling and making it work.

  7. Great post. I started keeping a notebook summary of all the movies we watched through the holidays. It’s become my favorite “writing” practice. I have each page outlined so all I have to do is fill it in as I watch the movie. I’ve also started using this practice with my favorite tv series. Now I understand why I enjoy those particular shows. It has help me tremendously as a newbie and showed me where my story needed to begin as well as helping me understand dialog. Thank you so much for posting this. Thanks to everyone for all the movie suggestions as well. Any particular movie dealing with child abduction or faked identity that anyone can suggest?

    • Hey Cindy – a great movie about child abduction is Mystic River. The abduction part is backstory, but it fuels the motivations of both hero and villain alike. It’s based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, whose novels keep coming back to that same theme. It’s a great read, too… the book/movie duo is as good as it gets! Enjoy! Larry

    • Primetime TV series become a great model for understanding the difference between “concept” and “premise.” Each episode of a series is built around the same “concept” (take Castle, for example, the concept never changes), yet with its own “premise” (this being the difference between the new flavor of series, especially on some cable and the pay venues: they break a single premise down into 10 to 13 chunks of a single premise from a single concept). Understanding that difference it a hugely powerful tool for writers who bother to go that deep. Thanks for chipping in today!

  8. I have this theory that Harvey Keitel has been in every movie since 1957.

    Nobody believes me.

    • Michael Caine, his co-star in Youth, has been in 180 movies. He said in a recent interview that Youth was his favorite and his best. Love Keitel, too, he’s so great in this film

  9. Ah, the question. I forgot the question.

    The movie that taught me the most about thriller novel writing is the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

    It’s a rich source of story information, structure, and example of dramatic build up.

    Unfortunately, the Swedes apparently didn’t give either the movie or Stieg Larrson their due, making the movie as part of a TV trilogy.

    • Good one. The thing about bestselling novels that become good films, is that the screenwriter usually takes the core structure of the novel (not to mention the concept, premise and characters), and compressed is to fit the timeframe of a movie. As such, the film becomes a clinic on the novel, as well. Fun, too, to read a novel after seeing the film, to really see how the author pulled off the things that work in the film version, including the effects and even the soundtrack. So much to offer in either venue. Thanks for your thoughts today!

  10. There are so many! Just a few: For thriller/mystery/private eye writers I suggest studying Chinatown (written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski post Tate pre rape). It’s multi-layered, a blend of characters, etc. For dialogue and pacing take a look at Casablanca (written collaboratively, credited to Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on a play, and directed by Michael Curtiz). Great bit characters, great supporting characters, not to mention the leads, dialogue that you can probably recite if you’ve ever seen it, and a stunning amount of plot packed into its 102 minutes. Now I’ll violate your rule and list two sequels. The Road Warrior (written by George Miller, Terry Hayes, Brian Hannant, directed by George Miller). I wouldn’t study the dialogue here, but every shot either advances character or advances the story. Nothing is wasted. It’s only 94 minutes, so no time for bloat. Do you want your story to have big action set pieces? Then take a look at Terminator 2 (written by James Cameron and William Wisher, directed by Cameron). This movie works just fine even if you didn’t see the first one (hint for writing a series). The story sucks you in. And so much action! Here’s the kicker: the first draft was written in six weeks. That’s fast.

    • Chinatown and Casablanca are two of the movies often used to illuminate craft, the latter being the go-to film shown and deconstructed at all the Robert McKee seminars (this is before he sings to the audience, which is his closer… I kid you not). The others you mention are good “gets” as well, especially in the thriller genre, which doesn’t get the respect it should relative to becoming models of storytelling. Thanks for contributing these today!

  11. Well-structured movies are a fabulous way to bone up on the novel craft.

    I learned about structure by intently studying movies, mostly classics, for a solid year.

    I will suggest two of my favorites. For pure, action -driven storytelling, you can’t do better than The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. There is so much good in that movie. It is practically perfect.

    If you are of a more character-driven, literary bent, I suggest studying the Bette Davis classic, Now, Voyager.

    • Love The Fugitive. Worth noting that in a discussion about books-to-film and original screenplays, this one was TV-to-film. Today there are a lot of TV series that play just like a film (as in, a 13-part film with one concept, one premise and 13 key mini-arcs), which wasn’t the case back in the day when The Fugitive was rewriting the TV thriller textbook. Good recommendations here, thanks!

  12. Great film, with a very classy resume (Christopher Nolan and Pacino, can’t miss). Not to be confused with the Stephen King novel of the same name.

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