Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Everything I Know About Writing Books I Learned From the Movies

Just kidding. Like probably all writers, most of what I’ve learned has been from the old “read a lot, write a lot” routine, with a fair bit of trial and error thrown in.

But not all of my writing lessons have come from the written word.  I think you can learn something from any form of storytelling, good and bad. Sometimes even a single line or two can be profound, no more so in my experience then in a short scene in Wonder Boys. This is one of the rare films I like even more than the book, for all kinds of reason (not the least being that Alan Tudyk has a small role in it). The scene in question, between a college writing student and her professor, goes like this:

Hannah Green: “Grady, you know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices?”

Grady Tripp: “Yeah.”

Hannah Green: “And even though your book is really beautiful […] it sort of reads in places like you didn’t make any choices.”

Took me a long time to understand the full impact of this small, seemingly insignificant little exchange. Writers make choices? Well duh. That’s all writers do, right? We name our characters, decide what they look like, move them around on the page like dolls in a toy house. Simple, really, don’t you think?

Nope, not by a long shot. Those things aren’t the choices that Hannah is talking about. She’s talking about the big stuff, the deep stuff, like deciding what makes a character tic, why the villain comes onto the scene with a gun on page 23. Transcribing these events, the conflicts, the arguments, the declarations of love is easy. Understanding them isn’t.

So what’s the trick to making choices you ask? Simple. You’ve got to ask questions. That’s the difference between writing on the surface and digging deep. When we drift along, letting the story unfold as it wants without pause or consideration, it’s like riding down a river in a raft with no oar. When we do things that way it’s too easy to get stuck, to move too slow, or even worse, to go over the edge into some unnecessary and unbelievable plot development.

So ask questions and make choices. Those are the oars writers steer by.  

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