Story Lessons from Thanksgiving Movies

Umm… Spoiler Warning. Just sayin.

Sara and I have (for the most part) gone without TV this month. We decided that there were things we wanted to get accomplished, and that TV was indeed serving as a distraction. So we shut it off for the month, with some built-in exceptions. (E.G. I had just begun a Lord of the Rings watch-through for the first time in years, and wasn’t finished yet. I had also ordered the 1408 DVD for my Halloween treat, and missed the opportunity to watch it during October.)

This Thanksgiving Break, I wrote over 27,000 words, most toward my current novel. In the moments that I wasn’t stuffing my face, sleeping, or writing, I needed a break. The gym was closed, (don’t laugh at me, I go to the gym to get a break, release stress, and listen to audio books) and there weren’t exactly many options open to us. We made a few exceptions and watched some movies.

Movies are one of my favorite ways to get a break from writing, because I can experience a totally different story from beginning to end in just an hour and a half. I can experience setting, character, and plot and if the movie is good – I have a good time.

The Adjustment Bureau

I started things off right with the Adjustment Bureau. I’d already seen this in the theater, and loved it from beginning to end. Basically it’s a Romance with an almost-Matrixy feel, involving these men wearing suits and bowler hats who control the future of human society. Matt Damon’s character (David) discovers these men at work (through a slip-up), and is told that he has to stay away from a girl he likes because “the plan says so”. It’s a classic love vs. fate plotline.

A professional critic wrote a review that warned that the ending was cheesy, and I’ll have to say… yeah, I agree. But it’s the good kind of cheese, the kind that you want extra on that pizza that Kevin orders just for him. It’s the kind of cheese that makes me feel warm and good inside, and I love it.

What I learned from the Adjustment Bureau: People are writing stories that I would have totally come up with, and they’re getting made into movies. I do not have singular tastes, and I should trust my ideas more.

Temple Grandin

Next, I watched Temple Grandin with my family. It is based on the true life story of Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, widely known for her voice on the experience of being autistic. I have been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and was not disappointed; it was riveting, and very educational for anyone who is curious about how autism works.

What I learned from Temple Grandin: Mostly that I just really respect the lady, and that I want to read her book “Emergence” as soon as I can. Since this was based on a real-life story, the only plotting lesson I could learn is that life really can supply some of the best inspiration for conflict and opposition.

Return to Me

I’m a guy that likes Romances. Usually I prefer Romantic Comedies, but I can watch something more sentimental if it has some wit to it. I’d borrowed Return to Me months ago from my sister, and eventually got too busy with the wedding for movies. Now seemed like the best time to watch it. She warned me that it was a bit cheesy, but that she loved the old men in the movie. I actually thought it was a really touching story. However (and it’s this part that usually gets me into trouble), the reason the story was so corny was because the conflict at the end was so unbelievable. The whole thing hinges on Grace being unable to confess that she’s had a heart transplant, even though it would have fit really easily into some of the conversations they had.

I’m sorry, what? You can’t tell this guy you really connect with that you had a Heart Transplant? What’s worse is that they continue on this path to drive the entire climax of the film, because when she finally does tell him (after finding out that her new heart was his late wife’s), he walks off. Everything we’ve seen about this character has shown him to be a man in emotional control, who is respectful and considerate and all the things we know most men struggle with. So he walks off without so much of a “Whoa, this is a bit heavy… I might need some time to digest this, babe.”

Now let me come back to what I was saying originally. I thought the movie was charming. It was, for the most part, a great balance of sentimentality with a dash of witty humor. I loved the characters. I loved the dialogue. If these two were mine and Sara’s friends, it would have made a REALLY cute dinner story to tell folks.

I really enjoyed… almost the entire movie. It was just the ending that fell apart, all because the conflict was so impossible to believe. Not only that, but the “Character can’t tell the truth about something” conflict is a horrible choice, and smacks of Disney TV movies.

Hitch

If you want to see an example of this kind of conflict done RIGHT, watch Hitch. You’ll notice that the conflict was built out of a lot more than just “Hitch didn’t tell her what he does for a living”. It had all sorts of problems; the paparazzi, Alfred’s insecurity, Sara’s strong personality and desire to defend her friend, the fact that their relationship has been relatively short, and the nature of Hitch’s job ALL lead together to make the conflict work.

All the same, if you’re constructing a romance, I would strongly encourage you to look for a different conflict than “this character can’t tell the truth for some reason”.

Cool Runnings

Cool Runnings was one of my very favorite movies as a kid. I haven’t seen it since I was about 10, and I never had the opportunity to watch it until recently when it was found in Sara’s collection. Even then, she put it in and I walked in partway through and got caught up in it. I don’t know why I didn’t put it in myself… I think part of me was afraid the same thing would happen as when I watched Three Ninjas when I was older and realized it was a really, really dumb film. That killed one of my favorite movie experiences, and I didn’t want to taint Cool Runnings in my memory.

Whatever your opinion about cheesy Live-Action movie films from the 90s, this film is still awesome. It was about a laugh a minute, and I absolutely love the ending. The movie peppers in conflict throughout, so that instead of getting one huge showdown of hero vs. villain at the end, we watch the team overcome adversity time and time again.

I loved it! I don’t think stories always need to have everything converge at the end. This felt authentic, despite the funny jokes in bad accents, overall silliness, and corny moving speeches from John Candy. Once again, I felt that the sled-breaking in the end felt somewhat fateful, like a slice of life and deus ex machina all rolled into one. But that’s okay. I could believe it would happen.

So the convergence of all these lessons comes to this; If you want to write any idea or genre and you don’t know if it will be well-received, just go for it. Just avoid the “can’t tell the truth” as a major conflict, and make the heroine’s heart act up and put her in the hospital instead. Makes more sense anyway.

NaNoWriMo Survival: Week One

Here’s the little tricks I’ve either learned or put to good effect this week; I’m posting them as advice to myself, because I am dense enough to have to learn these things over and over.

  1. Start small – a half hour on and five to ten minutes off is a great way to get started, and yeah, even a half hour’s worth of words adds up!
  2. Allow yourself to write whatever, including your current frustrations. Likely doing so will help you through a problem, or at least warm up your writing muscles.
  3. Periodically keeping track of words/time spent is a great way to give yourself a pat on the back and keep you going, but don’t get obsessed with it. Writing comes first.
  4. After you hit word goal, do something else besides writing.
  5. Write in small increments. I know I kind of said this already on #1, but this is a BIG DEAL. Writing in 4 half-hour sessions may be more effective than trying to block out 2 hours of uninterrupted time.

FIRST DRAFTS

As a writing tutor, I run into this a lot with students. They often feel like they are bad writers, and they obsess with fixing their first draft. Can I share with you a piece of writing wisdom that may transform your life? Do you think you can handle it?

First Drafts are not for fixing, but for rewriting entirely.

Now that I’ve given you the scary part, let me soften it. The second draft is MUCH easier. It’s soooo much easier. The thing is, you already know what you want to say, and now you’re saying it better.

Once you’re able to get past the scariness of “more work”, you may find this fact to be liberating. You mean you don’t have to get it all perfectly the first time? No. Far from it. Stephen King includes an exerpt from his short story 1408 in On Writing. Pick it up in the bookstore and look at it. It’s amazing to see how much this seasoned, professional writer transforms his drafts.

Credit yourself for ANY WORK DONE. This means those pre-writing sessions, or the rants about your frustrations. All work done sitting down, in the word processor. (Sorry, Facebook and other internet distractions don’t count as work, but with a timer they can serve as a great breather! Use your phone or ipod to keep your internet time-wasting under strict control.) This is why I like to keep track of my hours spent writing as well as the words; because those hours are work, even if they were less productive than some. We get paid at our office jobs by the hour, although only an average of 30% of our work day is actually spent on productive work. The rest is pre-work, organization, and activities that help us recharge.

During NaNoWriMo, it will not be to your advantage to make sure that you keep your manuscript orderly and neat. It won’t help you to keep rants out of the manuscript. What will help you is anything that keeps you writing, keeps your hope up, and keeps you sane. Get to it. If you are writing, you’re a writer. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about.

Good luck on Week 2!

Bridging the Gap (Working Backwards)

Sometimes while writing, we know where we eventually want to end up in the story, but get stuck on exactly how to get there. I know my plucky heroine escapes the cyborg ninja, but how? I vaguely know the kind of triumph I want my characters to experience toward the end of the story, but what exactly is this and how does it come about?

As I’ve said in some of my previous blogs, Creativity is Problem-Solving; asking questions, coming up with answers. In keeping with this knowledge, I’m going to impart wisdom I’ve learned from playing the violin; working backwards.

Often violinists will learn and practice a new song from beginning to end. We learn the first few measures and lines, become comfortable with those, and move on until we’ve learned the entire song. The problem with this method is that the beginning, which has been practiced hundreds of times more than the ending, is the best part.

But as we know in both songs and stories, the ending is the most important part. How do we fix this? Practice backwards. Play the last few measures, repeat. Add in the previous line, repeat. Do this until you get back to the beginning of the song – because if any part shines better than the rest of the song, we want that to be the end.

I do both backwards flow-charts and lists. Basically, start with an ending you want; “Victorious, the plucky young hero is invited to join a secret organization.” In a flow chart, you circle this and draw a small line leading to your next point.

Remember, creativity is coming up with questions and answers. Your next question is this; “What has to happen in order for this to be possible?” In my example, the answer requires her to be victorious at something. So my next step could say, “The heroine defeats the cyborg ninja and thwarts his evil plan.” Repeat. What has to happen in order for this to be possible? The ninja has to be on the verge of success. That, and, we need a better of an idea of exactly what his evil plan is.

Continuing on with the list, or flow chart, will help us discover an evil plot for him!

Keep in mind that while outlining and drafting, anything is subject to revision in further drafts. This is a good thing. It’s like those practice sessions on the violin; the ending will become better and more polished as you continue through your drafts.

On the Snowflake Method with Ali Cross

Ali Cross is an insatiable writer and organizer, heading a community of writers through her Ninjas Write Website. Her novel, Become, is coming out on 11/11/11. I’ve recently become involved with this community via online chat and other methods, and I find their company to be valuable to me. I’ve already begun to make some really cool friends, and get to know some writers that have great advice and support to offer.

Today she has been kind enough to host my blog on Outlining, which I hope will be useful to writers getting ready to do NaNoWriMo this year. The link can be found here.

I asked Ali to host this blog and, to my surprise, she agreed. You can judge for yourself if you think she made the right decision. If you’re a writer, consider stopping by the dojo and signing up, as well as following on twitter to keep up on the next upcoming Ninja Chat!

Snowflake Outline Instructions

I wrote a blog on outlining a novel, which will soon be hosted on Ali’s website. This is a cheat-sheet I wrote up, simplifying Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method (which I wrote more about in the blog post). I have it printed up and tacked to the wall over my desk, as well as the inside of my notebook where I keep my notes on the story:

Step 1: Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Keep it short (less than 15 words), avoid names, tie together the big picture and the personal picture. [1 hour]

Step 2: Expand the sentence into a full paragraph describing story setup, major disasters, and the ending. [1 hour]

Step 3: Write a one-page summary sheet for each of your major characters that tells: Name, one-sentence story summary, motivation (abstract), goal (specific), conflict (obstacle to goal), epiphany (growth), and a one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline. [1 hour per character]

Step 4: Expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in disaster. The last paragraph tells how it ends. [several hours]

Step 5: Write a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These character synopses should tell the story from the point of view of each character. [a day or two]

Step 6: Expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. [1 week]

Step 7: Expand character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. Birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, change through the story, etc. [1 week]

Step 8: Make a scene list in a spreadsheet. Include one line for each scene, the POV character, and what happens. (Perhaps Chapter Numbers) [1 day]

Step 9: Take each line from the spreadsheet and expand it into a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the conflict.

Step 10: Sit down and start pounding out the real first draft. This stage is incredibly fun and exciting!

Book Review: Hard Magic by Larry Correia

book cover of Hard Magic
Click here for the Amazon page.

Overall Rating: 5 stars (Loved It!)

This book blew me away.

In a world that suddenly got magic in the mid-1800s, we follow a group of magical heroes led by General Pershing against the Immortal Emperor Tokugawa. We follow Jake Sullivan, and ex-convict and a “Heavy” who can spike gravity. There’s also Faye, a teleporting country bumpkin girl who seeks to avenge her grandfather. Some people sport super strength, telekinesis, healing, or the ability to influence others’ minds… the list of powers goes on.

If MHI was an homage to B monster movies, this might have begun as an homage to those 30s and 40s noir films, with the smart-mouth Private Eye in his black fedora. Seriously, I read Monster Hunter International and liked it, but this book was on a whole other level. Correia’s writing style has become more smooth and complex. In addition, the wide cast of characters were all very deep and convincing.

This is where I believe artists live to contradict themselves. I’ve met Larry, and Correia spouts long and hard about being a “Pulp Writer”, claiming that his books will win no award for literary quality. He may be right about that, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t DESERVE an award. Somewhere along the line, focused entirely on entertaining people, Larry Correia touched my soul.

I read the audio version, and I started looking for excuses to do chores around the house so I could keep listening. I went for walks, runs, washed dishes, cleaned floors that were already sparkling, cooked meals for a week ahead of time, and unpacked boxes that had hitherto been condemned to the closet. I found myself laughing, choking up, and getting adrenaline pumped along with the book.

And yet what other book can make you cry, at the same time as having a teleporting ninja-fight aboard a flying dirigible? Probably something else by Larry Correia.

I’m calling your bluff, Correia, on being merely a “pulp writer”. Literary critics can go to hell. This is the kind of thing I read for.

Content

Age: Marketed to Adults

Language: Yep, expect a few SOBs and F-bombs.

Violence: I did mention this is a book by Larry Correia, right?

Sex: Mentioned, but not written.

Book Review: Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

book cover for peeps
Click here for the Amazon page.

Overall Rating: 3 stars (Liked It)

When I first saw this on the shelf and read the summary on the back, I couldn’t help but think, “Ooooh! Vampires meets Scott Pilgrim!”

And so, naturally, I picked it up.

Cal is a carrier of a parasite which infected all of his ex-girlfriends. They have all become vampires, parasite-positives, or “Peeps” for short. Cal may just be a carrier, but he’s got the strength, the night-vision, the craving for meat, and the horniness of a Peep. After catching all of his ex-girlfriends for the Night Watch, he is charged with finding the girl who infected him in the first place.

Cal is also a biology major, and just a little bit nerdy. Between chapters he gives mini-biology lessons on parasites, which are usually quite entertaining, and a little icky. He makes vampires scary in a completely different way, by relating them to intestinal worms.

The book doesn’t earn one of the highest ratings from me, but it was very entertaining and I read it in two sittings. I appreciated that, while sex is a common theme to the story, it successfully avoided being explicit, or in making me tired of the subject (which generally happens very quickly for me). It also avoids being gushy, which seems to be the weakness of most vampire stories, especially those marketed to teens.

So the book earned three stars simply because when I post this up on Goodreads, I won’t be able to give it three-and-four quarters, and I don’t quite feel like it earned an even four. Even so, if it sounds like something that’s up your alley, I highly recommend it as a fun read and an interestingly original take on teen-vampire stories.