Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective, Part II


Last year I recommended two Youtube channels that examine story through the lens of a different genre–video games and movies.

Today I have another recommendation: Lessons from the Screenplay.

This channel takes a writerly bent on movie analysis by examining the screenplay directly. I’ve been impressed by and learned something from each video I’ve watched–I’m not caught up with the backlog yet, and I’m skipping some videos to avoid spoilers for movies I’m interested in seeing but haven’t.

Anything, though, that gets me thinking about the guts and bones of story construction is something I want to pass around for everyone to share.

Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective


Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve read every piece of writing advice floating out there in the collective consciousness of the Internet. Obviously that’s not true, but the diligent writer is exposed to so much that even the best bits of wisdom can start to seem stale.

Good news, though–you don’t have to get take all your advice from other writers.

Among my many and varied YouTube channel subscriptions are two I’d like to recommend as alternate sources of writing advice/criticism from different disciplines: movies and video games. Not every video on both channels will have direct applications to writing, but a great many of them have interesting things to say about storytelling, characterization, and presentation, so there’s plenty of crossover subjects.

For video games, I present Extra Credits. A collaboration between some incredibly intelligent people across several video-game disciplines (artists, animators, developers/consultants,) they cover a broad range of topics from the importance of integrating gaming into the classroom, to narrative choice and structure, to how the game mechanics influence and limit storytelling potential. (I consider this a must-watch for any video gamer, regardless of its application to writing. Also, on a side note, their sub-series Extra History is fantastically fun and interesting, and they cover all sorts of oft-neglected events and time periods I’ve known absolutely nothing about. Also a recommended watch.)

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is why video games often tell bad stories, and it was one of the ones that hooked me–but there’s YEARS of episodes to go through, so I’m sure you’ll find plenty more worth your time.

For movies, I present Every Frame a Painting. Yes, film is a visual medium and we writers are working with words instead, but a lot of the same lessons apply.

In the episode I’ve shared, the topic is what the chairs in the film tell you about the characters and the setting, making them a fascinating shorthand object for the scene. When I first saw it, I kept thinking, yes, this is what I need to be doing in my writing, keeping the details minimal by utilizing important, signifying objects. Though not necessarily chairs.

EFP doesn’t have the same deep back-catalog to dive into, so I’d go ahead and say watch them all (unless you come across one for a movie you haven’t seen but intend to–though EFP’s mastermind Tony does diligently warn the viewer of spoilers, so have no fear on that score.)

Again, not all of them will have a direct analogue to writing like the chairs, but I’d usually finish most of them thinking about my own writing from a new angle.


10 Dialogue Prompts, Movie Edition: Airplane!


I’m a sucker for a good movie line, and the other day at work, I tossed out “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue” when things were going very, very wrong.

A handful of coworkers busted their guts laughing, while the rest looked at me funny. Turns out, not everyone’s seen Airplane!

But it gave me the idea to set out some of my favorite lines from the movie as dialogue prompts, because oh, the places they could go.

  1. “It takes so many things to make love last. But most of all, it takes respect, and I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.”
  2. “It’s a damn good thing you don’t know how much he hates your guts.”
  3. “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.”
  4. “Surely you can’t be serious.”
  5. “You can tell me. I’m a doctor.”
  6. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
  7. “But what’s most important now is that you remain calm. There is no reason to panic.”
  8. “I can’t tell you that. It’s classified.”
  9. “No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”
  10. “What are you doing here? You can’t fly this plane!”

Have fun with them, and keep an ear open for good prompts when you’re watching your favorite movies!

This Week, I Read… (#19)

41 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

#41 РTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

  • Read: 5/516 – 5/7/16
  • Provenance: Library (paperback)
  • Challenge: ReadsTheBooks 2016 Reading Challenge
  • Task: Read the book then watch the movie
  • Rating: book – 2/5 stars; movie – 4/5 stars

DNF @ 15%. This book was impenetrable to me. The sheer weight of spy jargon and Cold War era British idiom was crushing–I was reading paragraphs several times to pull them apart and still not really getting it.

Which is a shame, because the prose I did understand was lovely. There just wasn’t enough to keep me going.

This two-star rating is not an accurate reflection of the quality of the book for more advance spy-genre lovers; I only dabble, and I tend not to like them much anyway. This is strictly a measure of how much I enjoyed it, which is to say, not much.

The movie, on the other hand, stripped the story down to its vital components, leaving behind everything that confused me in the book. The cast was amazing and the acting marvelous. The cinematography was impressive (though I can’t say “beautiful” because ’70s-era London is portrayed as downright grimy, which suits a spy movie), and the score. The score. It was phenomenal.

Because I didn’t finish the book, I didn’t know the identity of the mole when I watched the movie, and man, the reveal was fantastic, and my mind flicked back over all the foreshadowing, and I was thrilled to have missed it. Does that sound weird? It does, but it’s a sign of how well subtlety gets the job done.

42 - Prodigal Summer

#42 – Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Read: 5/7/16 – 5/11/16
  • Provenance: Owned (hardcover)
  • Challenge: PopSugar 2016 Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book that takes place during summer
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This was the book I needed after two two-star reads. (Thank you, TBR Jar, for giving me a good one.)

I’ve never read Kingsolver’s work before, though I do have the incredibly famous The Poisonwood Bible on my TBR shelf–I picked both books up from the same library sale, I just ended up reading this one first.

I was enchanted. There’s no other word for it.

Prodigal Summer is deliciously slow-paced, rich in language and dripping with wonder, even reverence, for nature. This story celebrates nature from the high mountain forests straight down to the farms and apple orchards.

42 detail

[The artwork on the inside covers.]

The three interwoven story lines are all engaging on their own, centered on interesting characters brimming with idiosyncrasies, and in the end when they’re tied together, it feels satisfying, not forced. (And there were clues all along, if you’re good at spotting them. I got some, but I’m sure I missed others I’ll pick up someday in a reread.)

While I gave this five stars, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone–it’s character- and conversation-based much more than action, and anyone who doesn’t want to spend paragraphs learning about moth life cycles and coyote pup-rearing and Amercian chestnut blight…well, give this one a pass.

But if you’re a tree-hugger, nature-lover like I am, definitely read it.

This Week, I Read… (#17)

38 - The Last Unicorn

#38 – The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

  • Read: 4/18/16 – 4/23/16
  • Provenance: Library (another first edition!)
  • Challenge: BookRiot Read Harder 2016
  • Task: Read a book then watch the movie, debate which is better
  • Rating: 5/5 stars (book); 3/5 stars (movie)

Yeah, the book is better. Not that the movie doesn’t have its charms, but…

Okay. First, I cannot recommend this book enough. If you love fairy tales, you need to read this. If you love beautiful language and inventive, often surprising metaphor, you need to read this. If you love stories that take common tropes and pull them apart to piece them back together in beguiling ways, you need to read this.

But you don’t necessarily need to watch the movie.

I was pleased to see in the opening credits that Beagle adapted the novel for the screen himself, so I knew the story and the dialogue would stay true, and it did, for the most part. What was missing from the movie was that incredible turn of phrase Beagle put to use in describing things, like the introduction of the Red Bull:

He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under an old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars.

Now, the movie has its gorgeous moments, but how can an artist really capture those words in an image? I liked the depiction of the Bull in the film, especially how he had pig-like aspects in addition to his bullishness, since in many ways the Bull is a representation of King Haggard’s greed. But no matter how good it was, it couldn’t convey the extra layers of meaning, of association that the text can with the power of simile and metaphor.

And about the film. Really, it’s a victim of its time. The art style remains beautiful, but boy howdy is the animation dated. And the music. I could have done without the cheesy ’80s rock ballads on the soundtrack. Honestly, I don’t see why Lady Amalthea needed a song, either. Prince Lir sings to her in the book, so that was fine (and it helps that Jeff Bridges can sing) but the rest of it I felt detracted from the quality of the film.

Caveat: Maybe if I had seen this first as a child, I wouldn’t mind so much. I adore Ladyhawke, for example, and the exact same criticism can be leveled at its cheesy ’80s soundtrack, but I love it anyway, because when I first saw it…well, it was still the ’80s! So because The Last Unicorn was not part of my childhood fantasy-movie canon, I may be more critical of its flaws than I am of say, Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal.

Another bone I have to pick with the movie was the voice acting. It’s got some stellar performances (Christopher Lee, of course, I don’t think he ever gave a less-than-stellar performance in anything; Angela Lansbury and Rene Auberjonois both made the most out of their bit parts) alongside some incredibly flat ones, one of which was, sadly, Alan Arkin as Schmendrick. He sounded as out-of-place in The Last Unicorn as, as…well, as Matthew Broderick in Ladyhawke.¬†And he’s a principal character, so that got old, quick.

The last bone worth picking is perhaps the hardest to forgive. I know things need to get cut from books to make the movies work, but the removal of the entire Hagsgate curse storyline? Really? That takes all the punch out of the ending and eviscerates Prince Lir’s character arc. I was disappointed.

So, in the end, read the book, but maybe skip the movie. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as good.