Do you ‘see’ your story before you write it? I know many writers do. For me writing a piece of fiction is like taking a movie that’s playing away in your head, and attempting to put it down in words. Trying to do so in a way that it can be understood and visualised by a reader.
Given that most novels/short stories start out as a movie in a writer’s head, I began to wonder if I could learn anything about writing a good novel from watching movies. I thought about the movies that I most enjoy, and I decided to watch them again, but actively, the way that I read now, and see what I could glean from them. To try and uncover what made them so magical to me.
It sounds obvious, but actually a movie is probably the best way to study the craft of storytelling. The story structure jumps out at you much more clearly and cleanly than with a novel because you watch a movie in one sitting. On KM Weiland’s website Helping Writers Become Authors she includes a Story Structure Database . She is a novelist herself, and is an expert in story structure, but most of her focus in this database is on film. In this database you will find analyses of the structures of some of the most famous movies ever made. It is worth having a look before watching your next movie. You’ll start to see the structure emerge as you watch it.
On a micro-level I found that, you can a lot from movies about scene building, perspective and focus, point-of-view, shifting timelines, juxtaposition, pacing, settings, characterisation through clothing, gesture, communicating emotion through facial expressions, tone of voice, body-language and dialogue, creating suspense and tension, pacing, opening and closing a scene.
Here are the movies that I re-watched, and what I found to be the best lessons from each in terms of good storytelling:
1. The Talented Mr Ripley: The Flawed Protagonist and Tension-Building
This is one of my favourite movies of all time, and I think it offers writers a lesson in subtle tension-building. The story starts out pleasantly enough and then slowly, slowly the tension begins to build. It simmers, and then it fizzes and then it crackles, and then explodes, before subsiding and slowly building again. In this movie, a look, a movement, a gesture can create ripples of unease.
In terms of points of view, it is very interesting. Ripley is the villain, but he is also the protagonist. It forces viewer into an awkward position. Though we feel a certain sympathy for Ripley, he also makes us feel uncomfortable. We dislike him, and yet we continue to root for him. It goes to show, we will root for the protagonist no matter how flawed he is, as long as he inspires some sympathy and those around him are a little less likeable.
The scene below is just beautiful. It demonstrates how to make a villain sympathetic, and how beautiful dialogue can be.
2. Blue Valentine: Juxtaposition, Emotion and Characterisation
Love stories begin when the two people first meet. They chart their relationship as they start to develop feelings for one another. Then (oh no!) there’s an obstacle in the path of their love, and then (yes!) the obstacle is overcome and there’s some big romantic crescendo and they finally get it together. At the end it’s all ‘and they lived happily ever after’.
No normal relationship is ‘happily ever after’. Nope. ‘Happily most of the time after’ is the best you’re gonna get. Characters in romantic movies are pretty impulsive and liable to make very bad decisions, so let’s face it, happily ever after is most definitely not on the cards for these people.
This is the movie about what happens to those characters after the credits roll.
And it’s about the slow, painful demise of a romantic relationship and I love it. Like Dickens this movie uses juxtaposition very effectively. The best of times are powerfully juxtaposed with the worst of times. We witness the characters’ journey as a couple. Their naive hope at the beginning of their relationship and the moments building up to its heartbreaking conclusion.
In terms of characterisation, the two main characters are complex, and their emotions are incredibly raw. Their interactions with one another are worthy of study. Their body language, their facial expressions- how she folds into herself when he holds her. They say so much without saying a word. An important tool in the writer’s toolbox.
The clip below is an example of the use of juxtaposition in the telling of the story. The making of a promise alongside the breaking of it, tears of joy alongside tears of pain.
3. Pulp Fiction: Dialogue, Changing Points of View, Timelines, Characterisation
Pulp Fiction combines memorable dialogue, with bucket-loads of action, vibrating visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack. Subtle, it ain’t. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the chops. Unlike Ripley or Blue Valentine, watching this movie won’t teach you anything about subtlety. What it can teach you is how to successfully tell a story using multiple points of view and shifting timelines. It can also teach you how to characterise using compelling dialogue, and through hairstyles, makeup and clothing.
So much is communicated in movies through facial expressions, body language or gestures, but in this film either the characters are speaking or they are doing pretty horrible things. The main characters have good poker-faces. Given that most of them are shady individuals, that makes a lot of sense. So we depend on dialogue and action to learn about the characters. Setting aside the action, Tarantino writes great dialogue. It’s witty and snappy and interesting and powerful and meandering and occasionally it appears superfluous, but it feels authentic. The authenticity of the dialogue lends credibility to the action going on around it.
I’ve linked to one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Iconic for its use of powerful dialogue.
4. Boogie Nights: Dialogue, Story Structure and Character Arcs
I seem to have a dark penchant for stories where everything starts off nice and dandy, and everyone is loving life, and it’s all just grand and then everything goes to absolute shit. The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, Boogie Nights…it all goes to hell in a hand basket and I love it.
Boogie Nights focuses on the story of ‘Dirk Diggler’, but it also interweaves the narratives of porn director Jack Horner, and his other young proteges, as they seek to fulfil their various dreams. Dirk’s star in the industry quickly ascends due to his massive ‘talent’, and it is a happy time for him and the other characters. As Dirk becomes addicted to drugs and his star begins its steep descent, the rest of the characters go down with him (pun totally unintended).
After a number of harrowing scenes, where it is made clear that they will never be treated with respect by the hypocritical members of ‘normal society’ characters emerge battered, bruised, jaded. They are each forced to compromise as they come to the realisation that the most valuable thing that they have is their highly dysfunctional, porn ‘family’. In spite of the fact that it is a movie about the porn industry, there is a purity to the story that I find really endearing, because it is fundamentally a story about finding out where you belong, and the importance of family.
Of all of the movies I’ve picked, this one most clearly demonstrates the concept of a story arc and character arcs. The director does a lot of fancy tricks with cinematography and the soundtrack is amazing, but the story structure is simple and powerful.
Another thing I love about this movie is the dialogue. The characters are mostly naive, delusional dreamers. Dirk in particular is hilarious, but with absolutely no sense of self-awareness and not a hint of irony. The result is equal parts funny and tragic. In the clip below Dirk and his best friend Reed, are trying to get out of porn by breaking into music business.