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Monday, August 20, 2012

What Hollywood Will Tell You

by Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL

@Stina Lindenblatt

Last month, I attended the Romance Writers of America (RWA) national conference in Anaheim. What were the most popular sessions? Those conducted by screenwriters. No, writers weren’t attending the sessions because they hoped to write an academy winning screenplay or because they want to turn their novels into movies. They knew these individuals had the knowledge that could take the writers’ stories to a new level, when they applied the successful techniques employed by Hollywood. 

Most novelists study their craft by reading books on writing fiction. But don’t ignore books written for screenwriters. A popular one for both screenwriters and novelists is Save the Cat by Blake Synder. Not only does it provide a solid framework for structuring your story, the publisher (Michael Wise Productions) has an impressive list of books that will appeal to novelists, too. Topics range from story structure, subtext, symbolism, characterization, story lines. The best part is, they use examples from well known movies and TV shows. You don’t have to suffer through an excerpt taken out of context or spend hours reading the novel. You can easily watch the show or movie in a fraction of the time. Warning: after reading these screenwriting books, you’ll never watch a movie or TV show the same way again. And for that, I apologize. 

I’ve attended a number of workshops for fiction writers. Some are by novelists, others by screenwriters. The ones that had the most impact on me were those conducted by screenwriters, or those involved in making movies. Why? Because I’m a visual person. Novelists tend to read examples from their novels, and being the ADHD person that I am, my brain tends to wander. The author’s point is then lost on me. But with the screenwriters, they show clips from movies to prove their point. At the RWA nationals, I attended a session on The Six Layers of Characterization. The instructor explained the character-trait diamond for Helen Hunt’s character in As Good As It Gets. He then played a clip from the movie, while pointing out how she demonstrated those traits through dialogue, action, body language. It was a powerful example of characterization. 

As writers, we need to read. A lot. We read both in and out of our genre. We analyze stories, and figure out what we liked and didn’t like about them. You can do the same with movies and TV shows, and apply what you learned to your story. Fiction writers don’t have the benefit of music to create mood. Study other techniques used in a movie, in a similar vein to your story, which conveyed mood. Find a way to incorporate them into your writing. What kinds of symbols were used to reveal characterization and plot? Study how the actors portrays the characters. What kinds of physical details relating to the character or setting does the director zoom in on that adds power to the scene? Can you use some of those techniques in your story? 

In movies, the story is revealed through action and dialogue. There are no inner thoughts—most of the time. So how does the viewer get inside the actor’s head? Subtext. What do readers love? Subtext. Want to know how to do subtext well, then study movies. Analyze the difference between the great actors and the B-grade ones, then apply it your story to make it and your characters come to life. 

Don’t just watch a movie for its entertainment value. Watch it. Study it. Dissect it. Just like screenwriters do. 

Have you read any screenwriting books you recommend? Have you attended any screenwriting workshops even though you don’t plan to write a screenplay?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  


Jess said...

Great post, Stina! I'm going to a conference next month and will browse the list of sessions to see if there's something similar offered.

J. B. Chicoine said...

I just started reading Save the Cat with a view to revising my WIP, though I found it really helpful in coming up with possible log lines for my completed novel, as I'm getting into that "What's it about?" phase. Can't wait to dig in deeper as I continue reading!

Right now, I'm particularly interested in character development and subtext, so this post is quite timely! Tanks.

Martha Ramirez said...

Excellent post, Stina! And yup as you know I am a HUGE Save the Cat fan too. Ever since I got a hold of it years ago, I have never watched a movie the same again.

There is a ton novelists can learn from screen writer. Most definitely.

Stephsco said...

"Justified" on FX is an excellent TV show to watch for story pacing and dialogue. It's based on a short story (and a later book) by Elmore Leonard, and he's involved in the TV series as well. It FEELS literary. I love what that show accomplishes in sparse dialogue.

"Breaking Bad" is another show that has one of the best scripts around. Not only is the acting fantastic, but the stories and how they unfold are so gripping, and some of the most intense scenes are just dialogue.

Save the Cat is pretty great; I'm still hunting for a translatable beat sheet for novels; I've seen some around (since StC's is so screenplay specific)

Pk Hrezo said...

Totally agree, Stina. I analyze every film I watch now and it's so interesting.
BTW I just highlighted this article on YALITCHAT. ;)