… 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?