A Movie (that could be a clinic) for Novelists

by Larry Brooks

While we don’t always agree on everything put forth here on Killzone (remember the “I don’t think writing can be taught” hypothesis?), I’m guessing we’re all on the same page with one thing:

We like movies. Maybe we even love movies. Because as authors, we like to observe, marvel at and learn from all forms of storytelling.

Not all movies, of course. Some we like just because of the popcorn. Others because they are adaptations of books we love. Which too often leads to us finding ways that the movie isn’t quite as good as the book that inspired it.

Not a problem with today’s writer-to-writer movie recommendation. This one is an original screenplay, and stands alone as its own example of iconic storytelling.

Today I’m tossing out a current movie for Killzoners because of the other reason we love them: good movies delivering a great story can teach us something about narrative exposition, characterization, dialogue and the power of place and setting (that is, if you believe that storytelling actually can be taught, if nothing else than through example, which I’m confident includes most of us).

This particular movie is a powerful two-hour workshop on all of these narrative fundamentals.

It’s called Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner in an Oscar-worthy turn as the hero (a Fish & Game enforcer who carries a chrome-barreled cannon of a rifle) and Elizabeth Olson (a rookie FBI agent), with a stellar supporting cast of very serious dramatic artists.

Place and setting are the first things you’ll notice. It’s set per the title, deep within a 185-stretch of Wyoming wilderness in the dead of winter among a largely Native American community, and you’ll swear you can feel a brisk chill in the theater once the house lights go down. The setting – both geographic and demographic – becomes a narrative framework that exerts its power on the story arc, as well… it’s fun to watch that happen, and it’s a clinic on how to do it, as well.

It’s a flat-out murder mystery, as gritty and raw and emotionally-resonant violent as it gets. And yet, the dialogue delivers the rare duality of pitch-perfection and jarring humanity. You might want to bring a hanky, because there are moments of writing so spectacular – and let’s acknowledge the partnership between writer and actor on this count – that will take the chill right out of the air and send you into a swoon of envy that only another writer might sense.

Notice the Prologue, too. It makes a solid case that Elmore Leonard (who hated them enough to include Prologues in his list of things that we should never do), has at last been proven wrong on that count.

And then notice how the writer wraps in the backstory (at the third act turn) to inform all the troubling questions that have kept the players up at night and the viewers on the edge of their seats.

All that credit goes to screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan.

If you look him up you’ll think his mug shot looks more like a leading man than someone behind the camera, and if you read further into his bio you’ll see that he was indeed an actor on the cable hit Sons of Anarchy. 

Not an easy shift, as George Clooney continues to prove (the forthcoming Suburbicon is evidence to the degree of transitional difficulty).

But that’s not why Mr. Sheridan is Hollywood’s newest and hottest it boy. He’s already an Oscar nominated screenwriter, having penned last year’s Hell or High Water (with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges), and before that, the well-reviewed Sicario (with Emily Blunt). Both of those are writer’s-movies, as well.

Oh, and the ending… that’ll rock your world.

Read the reviews for Wind River on Rotten Tomatoes (which scored it a very respectable 88/93; I’m thinking some of the very few naysayers just didn’t hear the poetry and angst in the dialogue) and see what they’re saying about this guy. This movie is the fulfillment of the promise of those first two scripts, and because he directed Wind River as well, this is someone we’ll be hearing a lot from going forward.

You can click on the trailer for the movie at Rotten Tomatoes, as well.

We should all strive to summon a hero with this level of complexity, courage, backstory and heart to our novels, especially in the mystery/thriller genres.

This movie just might help us do just that.

Enjoy. If you’ve seen it (or if/when you do), please share your thoughts here from your writerly point of view.

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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.

11 thoughts on “A Movie (that could be a clinic) for Novelists

  1. I’ll have to see if Netflix is streaming this one. Thanks for the recommendation. We’ve been using our hour of TV time each evening to watch the Murdoch Mysteries, but I think the Hubster would be willing to watch this … gun, murder.

  2. Thank you for the movie recommendation and discussion of the ways the storytelling in screenwriting can inform our craft as writers. I look forward to checking out Wind River and the other examples mentioned.

    Apropos of your discussion, and in case writers reading this have have not consulted it, a great resource that, I believe, translates from screenwriting to novel writing very well and has helped my writing/storytelling is:

    Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style & the Principles of Screenwriting”

    In addition to his treatment of story arc/structure, conflict and resolution, the discussion of genre and theme elevated my writing consciousness.

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing Wind River.

    Another movie that taught me a whole lot about writing was the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (The Swedes keep telling us how great their Millennium Trilogy is, but they didn’t respect it enough to do anything but make a TV mini-series out of it)

    Both novel and movie versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo taught me a whole lot about where you stick the various parts of the structure, and Mr. Larsson showed me that you CAN use back story, and people will still come see your movie and read your book.

    Thanks for your letting us know about it. I just kept passing over it when surfing.

  4. Larry,

    Your movie deconstructions on Storyfix taught me a lot. Going to see Wind River this afternoon. The wildfire smoke is so bad here in MT, you have to chew the air before you can inhale, so it’s good to have an excuse to stay inside…studying the craft of writing!

  5. Larry, you’ve convinced me -going to see it tonight. Your recommendation plus the fact that Hell or High Water was one of the best films I saw last year.

    By the way, here’s an interesting comparison of the two versions of Girl/Dragon Tattoo, showing how much difference the choices a director makes can influence how a book is brought to the screen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yPdglgu_5w

  6. I knew you’d like this film. We loved it. The only thing that we questioned was the placement of the crime–the daughter’s backstory. I mean, these are details viewers need to know, and I thought the point of transition was clever, but you didn’t find the actual transition at all abrupt? It moves so quickly from the murderer’s PoV to the daughter’s.

  7. Last night I watched (again) The Hours. I have always loved this movie even though I never read Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” But after about the third viewing, I started watching it for its unique structure. Three women’s stories — the suicidal Virginia Woolf as she is writing Mrs. Dalloway, 1990s-era Clarissa who is coping with the impending AIDS death of her ex-lover, and 1950s-era Laura Brown, trapped in a stifling marriage. The way the screenwriter David Hare deftly toggles between all three plots and themes and brings them together in a devastating ending is a grand study in complex narrative style.

    I didn’t read Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours, but I am told is is equally brilliant. (well, it did win the Pulitzer). I should read it because I’ve always wanted to experiment with a multi-story, mixed time novel. Haven’t had the courage yet!

    Will check out Wind River!

  8. I knew going in, from the subject matter, it wouldn’t be nice, but it was brilliant and beautiful on so many levels. The story still would have been a good and respectable murder mystery – even without the outstanding characters and character interactions. Yep, I cried lots.

    One of my favorite snip-its was Reiner’s character working with his son on horsemanship – and his son says something like “just like a cowboy, huh dad?” And his dad says “Nope, that’s pure Arapahoe.” It showed how much his character (a white man that kept brooking some issues in the area because of it) loved the people and the area – including his ex-wife, son, and in-laws and how much he wanted his son to feel confident in himself and proud of his heritage – this plays out early. So many brilliant little scenes like this that show and solidify character while strengthening the story.

    My favorite scene is at the house of the family of the dead girl. It is gut wrenching and shows character and story in every word and shot…. very powerful, but the icing on the cake was someone had called Reiner’s character… After all of the tension and stoicism we’ve seen in this scene – Reiner shows up and the dead girl’s dad steps out on the porch with him and they cry and talk together dad to dad, as men who have lost daughters…. So powerful. And the wrap-up scene of the dads together – priceless.

    This movie couldn’t exist without the backdrop, scenery, and environment or without the characters and interactions presented. The story exists because of the history and backdrop it is played within. The characters show that history and backdrop in their characters and story – they are so tightly intertwined. It is beautiful, sorrowful, and masterful all at once… and I didn’t even get to mention the actual murder-mystery much. So well done – written and directed. Unfortunately, it won’t get any of the play and love it really deserves.

    Good call, Larry.

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