Monday, November 21, 2011

Feeling stuck with your writing? Go see a movie...

Often, more so than from books, I learn something about plot, setting and character from movies. Sure there are different constraints and different requirements, but the best movies tell complex stories with fascinating and compelling characters with endings that satisfy. And in a movie there is less time to achieve this end. A good movie must 'show' effectively, the motivations, the decisions, the emotions of the character. Good movies can teach us a lot about 'show'. Well chosen settings background the people and the action. Sometimes they play a character as well.

Last night I saw Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, and Carey Mulligan. The movie opens with the main protagonist (Ryan Gosling) doing one of his two occupations. By day he is a stunt driver for action movies, by night the wheel man of getaway cars. He is smart, ice cool and skilled. A man of very few words. He meets and falls for his neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, who has a young son and a husband in prison. When the husband gets out, he is targeted by thugs to whom he owes money, who threaten his family unless he does one last job. The driver offers to help for the sake of the man's wife and child. And it all goes horribly wrong.

What we thought we knew about the driver changes as the movie progresses. The violence is graphic and hideous but explains subsequent (and previous) events. Who do we root for? Can bad people be redeemed? How can extreme and opposite emotional states be rationalised? If you are squeamish this may not be the movie for you. But it is a gripping and rewarding watch. 5 stars from me. Another good movie, although with considerably less violence, stamped with the same quality, is Super 8. From the opening scene when the man changes the 'number of days since last work accident count' to 1 at the Steel Mill we know we are in for some subtle and sophisticated story telling. If you feel stuck with your writing? If you feel like you aren't 'getting' how you can improve your storytelling, go see some movies. Even bad ones will teach you something. At least your book doesn't rely on the quality of the acting or the amount of money you can spend on costumes, locations and special effects. Your characters just have to 'be' who you want them to be. Show us why they behave the way they do. Show us who they are and what makes them feel the way they do. Remember you don't have to spill your guts completely at the beginning (metaphorically speaking that is) of the story. Hold some stuff back. Make your reader wonder and want to read on to find out. A good plot is like a plait or shoelaces - it isn't done until its all laced together.

I'll be talking up a storm about plotting, character and showing and working through some juicy exercises on writing for children at the Centre For Continuing Education Summer Workshop next January.

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