What Authors can Learn from Movies

 

[dropcap][/dropcap]For Christmas, Santa brought me and my kids the Lord of the Rings box set…twelve hours of film plus an additional fourteen hours of DVD extras. I had no intention of watching it all—I mean really, I don’t watch twenty-six hours of television in a year let alone a week—but I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked! In fact, I think I liked the extras better than the movies.

Obviously I’ve read the trilogy and as an author of children’s fantasy fiction, I’ve long been inspired by Tolkien. But what caught my attention this time around was the way the production team approached the characters and the world.

When I was in grade school, my English teachers had me write character sketches and setting descriptions which I thought were completely useless exercises because I never understood why I was doing them. Little did I know then that they would become the main building blocks of my career. Even so, my characters exist in my head alone, not on film. I don’t need to provide every detail of every item of clothing because I couldn’t—and shouldn’t—spend time in my novels describing them. It would weigh down the stories and slow the pace.

But for the Lord of the Rings movies, the production team had no choice but to develop these kinds of details. Designers spent months studying each group of characters considering what their clothes, hair, weaponry and architecture would look like based on where and how they lived, their culture, their history and their beliefs. And the movies are richer for their effort. No one would ever confuse Gimli (dwarf) for Legolas (elf) because everything about the dwarf culture is harsh, angular and utilitarian whereas the elfen culture is refined, flowing and graceful–and of course there’s also a massive height difference.

So what’s the lesson here for authors? If we aren’t going to give the reader minute detail, why do we need to develop it?

Simple.

Knowing these details enables us to bring our characters and settings to life. It becomes more like writing about people we’ve met and places we’ve visited which in turn, creates more enticing stories for our readers.

And that’s what this job is all about.

How to Write an Action Scene

Action scenes are devilishly difficult things to write. I struggled with the beginning of my novel for months because of it – writing and rewriting action sequences until they worked. My hard work and perseverance seems to have paid off though, so much in fact that I was recently asked to read one of my action scenes at a local writer’s event, and asked to give a presentation on the topic to my writing group.

Since action scenes are an integral part of fiction – regardless which genre you like to write, or read – I thought I’d pass along what I’ve learned. (more…)

Why Prologues and Adverbs Get a Bum Rap

The prologue, like the humble adverb, is a despised thing among writers so I’ve learned.  So much so that, if you can believe the rhetoric, a manuscript of 90,000 words daring to contain one adverb is in danger of being denounced as rubbish and cast aside by agents – its author pooh-poohed as an amateur.  Likewise, the mere suggestion of inserting a prologue at the beginning of a tale is met with audible gasps of horror from those desperate to appear “in the know.”

Here’s the best thing about being a novice writer.  (more…)

New Beginnings

Whether you’re a writer or reader, chances are you’re familiar with the traditional story structure of a novel.  You probably had a diagram of it in your high school English class.  The first section is the setup, the middle part is the conflict and the final section is the resolution.

This is the structure I followed when outlining my novel.  As a result, in the setup I introduced my characters providing some backstory, and described the setting.  The inciting incident was at the end of the first section and was the thing that propelled the story onward into conflict.

This model has been used for so long, I didn’t even question it.  In fact, in all the books I’ve read about the craft of writing, structure was rarely mentioned – and even then it was to reinforce the traditional story arc.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right?  After all, we learn all about Cinderella and her chores, and meet the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters long before the invitation to the ball arrives (inciting incident).

Here’s the rub:  modern audiences (me included) expect to be hooked on a story right away – especially reluctant readers.

As a result the story structure has changed in that the setup is much shorter.  We learn about characters through their actions and relevant backstory is woven into the novel rather than being dumped all at once, in the beginning.

In Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets them Go, Les Edgerton talks about the modern story structure and how to incorporate what he calls the primary elements (inciting incident, initial surface problem, story-worthy problem, setup) and secondary elements (backstory, opening line, language, character introduction, setting, foreshadowing) of an opening scene.

The Hunger Games follows this newer model and I admit, Suzanne Collins hooked me right away.  My challenge now is to study more book beginnings to find the ones that grab me and then analyze which story structure they follow.  Since Edgerton is also a novelist, I’m going to start with his novels – after all, he has literally written the book on great openings.  I’d like to see if he can put his money where his mouth is.

Honestly, I think there’s nothing wrong with the traditional story structure – but I don’t have a problem with prologues, epilogues, adverbs or adjectives either.  They’re not inherently evil.  They’re just out of vogue.  If the agencies and publishing houses aren’t buying them, best I not try to sell it to them.  Hmm, it seems the path to rejection is paved with outmoded literary devices.  :)

Here’s a video of Les Edgerton talking about his writing style and method.

Hook Your Audience in 500 Words

An author has about 500 words (or roughly two pages) to hook her audience.  Think about it: when you’re scanning the shelves looking for a new book, you start with the first page, right?  You don’t open the book in the middle.  If you download an ebook sample, you’re given the first chapter, not the last.

Novel-writing is, in my opinion, a constant struggle to balance character development with plot.  This is also true – perhaps even more so – of a book’s opening.  In approximately 500 words a writer has to (1) create a character you care about/identify with and (2) hint at the danger that character will face as the story unfolds.

Let me give you an example.  Here’s the opening from Stolen Angels: The Kidnapped Girls of Uganda by Canadian author Kathy Cook (published by Penguin Books): (more…)

Never the Twain Shall Meet: Knowing Who to Ask for Feedback

I sometimes think it would be easier to strip naked and run down the street during the annual neighbourhood BBQ, than it would be to find out what people think of my book.

These are fleeting moments of insecurity mind you, but still I have a love-hate relationship with feedback.  I love it when it makes my writing stronger.  I hate it when I’m told my writing wasn’t already strong enough.

I’ve spoken to a number of writers about this, and am amazed that most of them turn to family and friends for opinions on their work.  We creative types are a sensitive lot … the thought of someone disliking our work kinda freaks us out – makes us think that by extension, we as individuals are also getting the thumbs down.  So, we naturally turn to the people who will lavish us with adoration.  Pretty human of us, don’t you think?

But I wonder at the wisdom of it.  After all friends and business don’t mix.

My “inner circle” is chomping at the bit to read my book – but I don’t think it would be fair, or wise, of me to ask them to review my work and provide feedback.  None of them are authors, agents, publishers or literary critics.  For the majority of them, fantasy isn’t even their genre of choice.  That is not to suggest I don’t need their constant support during this process however.  Let me give you two examples:

My BFF has already told me that she loves my book (and she’s only seen the synopsis).  But then, she’s my BFF – it’s her job to provide unwavering, unconditional support for all my crazy decisions – like the one to take an extended leave of absence from the secure (and paying) day job to write a story about dragons, mythical creatures and magic (on spec).  Yet, in spite of her many requests, I still won’t let her read the book until it’s published.  But if the book flops, I’ll need her to help me pick up the pieces of my self-esteem.  If it’s a raging success, I’ll need her to help me pick out a wardrobe for the hundreds of media interviews I’ll be doing.

I once left a draft of chapter one on the kitchen counter.  My 13-year-old son happened upon it, read the first few words on the page (“Chapter One – Meeting the Characters”), and panicked.  He asked whether ‘meeting the characters’ was the title of the first chapter.  When I explained that it was only a crib note to myself he relaxed.

“Well, that’s good!” he said, relieved.

“Why?” I asked.  “Were you trying to find a way to tell me – keeper of the xbox and bestower of groundings – that ‘meeting the characters’ sucks as a chapter title?”

He laughed.  “Yup.”

That said, I need his daily support too.  He babysits his sister while I’m writing, helps with the dishes so I can get back to the book, and never disturbs me when the office door is closed.

I think that receiving constructive feedback is essential – especially for a first-time author.  It helps keep me motivated and on track – and it makes me a better writer.  The fact is, I have one shot to make a good first impression with an agent or publisher.  I want to make sure I show them my best work.

That’s why I have Ed.  He’s an award-winning author with 10 novels under his belt.  He knows this business and gives me an honest assessment of my work – from a literary perspective.

My novel is being written from the protagonist’s (Al’s) point of view.  After reading one of my chapters Ed rightly identified that I’d shifted perspective – it was as though the reader no longer saw the action through Al’s eyes.  Instead he had become a third party observing a conversation between Al and his father.  The good news is that is exactly how I saw it in my head at the time of writing – so I know I can describe what I see.  The bad news is that I was seeing it the wrong way.

In all likelihood, the average reader would never identify a shift in perspective – but he would know that somewhere along the line, something went astray.  The story would feel “off” and it would be just enough of a hiccup to break a spell that I, as a writer of fantasy fiction, am working so hard to cast.

Ed also told me – around about chapter 12 – that my book was “becoming a real page-turner.”  I don’t know if he remembers that but let me assure you, I’ll never forget it!

This is the kind of constructive criticism that aspiring novelists need and should seek out.  Friends is friends.  Business is business.  Never the twain shall meet.

Writing a book takes a heck of a long time, and it can be lonely work.  So, when I want a pep talk I’ll turn to my BFF every time.  But, when I want to a better book, I’ll turn to Ed.

Monet & Me: the Art of Action Scenes

Actions scenes are tough to write.  Don’t believe me?  Try writing one – then let me know how you make out.  The problem is, there are precious few writing courses or “how to” books that teach a budding author how to do it properly.  Worse still, even fewer authors can write action scenes well, so studying other people’s work is hit and miss.

A while back I was reviewing a chapter of my book with Ed.  I’d spent a lot of time working out the action scene and was curious to hear his comments.  I was quite pleased with most of it, but there were still parts that didn’t quite work.  As he was giving me feedback, I sighed.  I suspect the poor man thought I was frustrated with him and he quickly added “Oh, action scenes can be devilishly difficult things to write.”  But it wasn’t him I was frustrated with – in fact he was right on the money, questioning the very parts I knew didn’t work.

Since then I’ve been studying action scenes and have tried to figure out what makes the good ones tick, and the awful ones stink.  It all boils down to this:  broad strokes, not detail.  Give the reader just enough information to understand what is going on, but not so much description that they get distracted.

It’s like being an impressionist painter.  It’s about creating an image with the least amount of brushstrokes (or words) possible.  The audience won’t even notice the missing detail.

Consider Monet’s painting Study of a Figure Outdoors: Woman with a Parasol, facing left.

Monet didn’t need to paint the details of Suzanne Hoschedé’s face for us to recognize the person as a woman.  Nor do we as authors, need to describe every parry for our audience to follow a sword fight.

So for the authors among you, if you want to write an effective action scene:

  1. use short, punchy sentences – every word must count
  2. ditch adjectives and adverbs in favour of active nouns and verbs
  3. focus on the action – this is not the place for a detailed description of the landscape
  4. edit the dialogue – dialogue can work well in an action scene, but only if it’s short, to the point and uses the least amount of tags (s/he said) possible
  5. walk away as soon the image takes shape – unnecessary detail will weigh it down
  6. practice, practice, practice – after all, action scenes are devilishly difficult things to write.

Outside the Writing Room: The Extroverted Author

For years I doubted whether I’d ever be able to write a book – not for lack of talent or ideas, but because I am an extrovert.  All the books I’d ever read about becoming an author said the same thing: be prepared to sit in a room all day long, by yourself.  Personally, I can’t think of anything less interesting and more to the point, who wants to read a book by a person who only ever sits in a room by herself?

My take on it is this – if you’re writing a book that you expect someone else to read and publish, you’ve got to go out there and live.  Do stuff.  Make mistakes.  Meet people (interesting ones and dull ones).  Be normal.  Let’s face it in a profession revered for its eccentrics, in today’s publishing environment eccentricity will only get you so far.

I can hear the purists balking already … what of “literature”?  Exploring our national identity?  Exposing the ills of society?  Starting a book with a tiny hint of an idea and “just goin’ with it man”?  Yes, what of it?  It’s great stuff and books that focus solely on these themes belong in academia, journalism and diaries – not stuff you typically see flying off the shelves.

People want to read about other people; characters we can identify with one way or another.  It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a boy wizard learning that life is all about the choices we make, or a Scottish vet learning to adjust to life in Yorkshire.  We’ve all made poor choices, and we’ve all been the outsider because we’re all out there living life and not sitting in a room peeking out at the world.

Today, readers want a good story and they want it fast – uncluttered with lots of flowery language and narrative summary.  A good author can deliver.  A great author will not only deliver, but also keep her readers in suspense and teach them something about being human.

Seclusion has its place.  A little quiet time sure does make the physical act of writing a lot easier, but I don’t think it’s a wise lifestyle choice for an author.  Far better to sandwich it between inviting a friend to dinner, or taking the kids to the park for a picnic (call it research if you must).

“Extrovert” doesn’t mean “loud mouth”.  (Although if you know a loud mouth, study him.  They’re fun characters to write.)  Being witty and entertaining will help when it comes time to promote the book, but being observant and curious is key to writing it.

When I was a little girl, I’d often spend Saturdays with my father running errands, visiting relatives and generally giving my mother a much-needed break.  Dad would always pick people out from the crowd ask questions like “what do you think he does for a living?” or “where do you suppose she’s off to in such a hurry?”  We’d make up whole lives for these strangers based on details like a woman wearing heels instead of sneakers, or a man needing a haircut.  Little did I know these were my first lessons in character development.

I still do it today.  I love to watch the interaction between people – those on a first date v. well-established relationships, for example.  Every now and then I spy a couple who’ve just had a fight – great stuff!  Their body language screams volumes, even though they’re not saying a word.  All fodder for a novelist.

I recently took my kids swimming at a nearby beach and spread my towel on the sand next to a woman with the most incredible red hair.  Honestly, beautiful.  A young boy, about seven, with the same red hair sat on the other side of me and began shoveling sand into a pail.  Nothing unusual so far.  Within minutes he began flicking sand at me.  At first I thought it was an accident – he was a little boy after all.  Then, I figured his mother (for that’s who I assumed she was) would speak to him.  Silly me.

It wasn’t until sand flew into my eyes and hair that I spoke (ok, spoke very loudly) to the kid.  For sure a mother would say something then, right?  If not to her son, then to me (either to apologize or tell me off).  Instead she stood, walked to the nearest picnic table (away from us both) and put a towel over her head.  Extraordinary!  Now, what do you suppose was going on in her life to make her behave in such a manner?

That’s character development.  It’s observing what people say and do, and then being curious enough to figure out why they said and did it.  Toss the character into a situation that makes them stretch and grow, and you’ve got a story that people will want to read.  The more they have to stretch, the better.

For this, an author needs to get out into the world.  She needs to meet new people and ask them questions.  Where do they work?  What do they like to do in their spare time?  Why have they chosen to have kids/not have kids, travel/not travel, stay married to the idiot/divorce the gentleman?

You don’t need to live a solitary existence to write a book.  In fact, you shouldn’t.  All you need is a little discipline so that you carve out the time necessary to infuse your story with the things you’ve experienced outside your writing room.

Character and Raison d’Être

You’ve heard the saying “there are no small roles, only small actors.”  Well, I argue the same is true of characters.  We’ve all read at least one book that had a “stock” character – someone following the formula for his archetype so closely that he was just dull; the disgruntled employee, the ditzy blonde or the immoral lawyer.  These types of characters add nothing to a story.  So why do writers smear an otherwise interesting book with them?

I think the problem is that writers see some characters as extras.  They’re like the poor ensigns in the original Star Trek series; disposable characters whose main function is to showcase the awesome power of the bad guys.  As soon as Kirk calls one to accompany the away team, the audience knows he’s never going back to The Enterprise.

Writing a book takes a long time.  I’m guessing that’s why authors lean on archetypes.  These out-of-the-box characters come readymade; they don’t require us to spend time figuring out what their motivation might be.  Bad guys wear black.  Period.

There is a place for this of course – children’s literature for example.  Young kids who are just learning how a story works, rely on archetypes.  That’s why Disney uses them so readily.  Stories for grown-ups however, require a bit more nuance.  And no, the bad guy wearing charcoal grey doesn’t cut it.

Most authors consider their main character; his likes/dislikes, where he works etc.  But few take the time necessary to develop the supporting characters.  They surround their hero with two-dimensional paper dolls.

If a character’s profession is central to the plot then his colleagues all provide opportunities to reveal information to the audience.  Why is a co-worker disgruntled?  What happened to him?  Moreover, what does it have to do with the story the author is telling?  If the answer is “nothing,” then I’d like to know why an editor didn’t kill him with a red pen.  Why show us a cynic if it doesn’t move the story forward?

However, a cynic who was once like our hero – a brilliant, young social worker determined to help the under-privileged – can be a wonderful way to illustrate society’s prejudices and the challenges our hero faces.  He can also foreshadow what our hero might become in time.  If we’re given a glimpse as to why he’s become disgruntled, then he has depth and enriches the entire story.

Remember, an author’s job is to convince the reader that the world she’s creating is real, and that the people living there exist.  That’s the contract between author and audience – I promise to entertain you with a totally believable yarn, if you spend twenty bucks on my book.  Readers always keep up their end of the bargain.  Writers sometimes fall short.