Film Based Plot and Character Development
by Randy Lindsay
Hold on a sec. This doesn’t look like my blog.
Oh, that’s right! I’m guest blogging for the delightsome duo of Shelly and Chad. Whew, I thought I walked into the wrong place. How embarrassing would that have been?
< Randy looks around the blog and nods his head in approval. >
I really love how they . . . use plenty of pictures to keep the page vibrant. It sort of figures that Shelly and Chad would each have their own side of the blog. Isn’t that nice that they have “Awesome Stuff” that links to other blogs.
< Randy looks in the direction of the readers and stops dead. >
Riiiiight. The guest blogger thing.
I’m here to discuss movies. If you’ve had a chance to check out my blog you probably noticed that I do movie reviews and frequently post about film related topics. There are some excellent lessons that novel writers can learn from Hollywood about plot and character development.
Or in other words, this is what I learned about writing from eating popcorn in the dark and watching movies.
When done correctly, movies are a marvelous platform for storytelling. By necessity, plot and characterization have to be compact because of the limited amount of time that can be devoted to them. This requires a tighter writing discipline than many novel writers have had a chance to develop.
“Opening Image” is a concept that I have borrowed from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. His book is intended to help people craft screenplays, but I believe that most writers can benefit from it. The opening image gives us a quick flash of the hero and the world while setting the tone for the film. This is often done during the credits.
When applied to novel writing it means that you have a page, or two, to give the reader a glimpse of the overall story. The audience is treated to a visual blast of what the hero normally does, how he normally acts, and the way that people respond to him. You are creating a snapshot of the story.
Think visually. Picture your protagonist. Then cram the essence of what he does on an average day into a few paragraphs. Once you do this, go back and tighten it up. Make sure the protagonist’s personality shines through. Then tighten it up some more.
Here are a few examples of successful opening images:
The Warriors – opens with a view of the neon lights of Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel. The cinematography and the carnival music give an other-worldy feel to the scene. Credits are then interspersed with shots of the members of the Warriors gang on a subway train to Queens. A quick consultation of a subway map on the train shows us that it will be a long way home for these travelers if something goes wrong. A quick bit of dialogue between the Warriors not only reveal their character to the audience but informs us that they will be attending a huge meeting that has been setup by the leader of the biggest gang in New York. Shots of other gangs boarding similar subway trains established the gang-filled landscape of the story and the dark camera work sets the mood.
By the time the credits have ended the viewer knows exactly what is going on in the story and is ready for the inciting incident.
(This is one of the snapshots of a rival gang that is displayed during the opening image.)
Major League 3 – opens with Gus Cantrell pitching a game in a minor league park. He struggles with his pitches and is ejected from the game for cheating.
That’s it. This is a story about a baseball player at the end of a long career in the minor leagues. The audience is immediately thrown into the casual setting of a minor league ball park where the majority of the story takes place. Bob Uecher provides the sports commentary during the game that tips us off that this will be a comedic look at the topic. And when Gus resorts to the use of a “frozen ball” to strike-out a batter we glimpse the unconventional nature of the hero.
Once again, in a very short period of time we are ready for the inciting incident.
(This is actually a photo from a scene at the turning point of the story-arc.)
If you can picture the scene you’re writing the chances are it will come out more vividly to the reader. Once you have an opening image in your head the description, lighting, sounds, and body motions should all translate nicely to the written page and your story will be richer because of it.
Next time you sit down to watch a movie pay special attention to the first couple of minutes. Watch how Hollywood develops the base story in an incredibly short amount of time. Then take a look at your work-in-progress and see how you can do the same thing for it.