Category Archives: Writing Lessons From…

Writing Lessons From Gravity

I often say that Avatar was the first film I saw in 3D but that’s not true. It was a space documentary narrated by Tom Cruise in the London IMAX. So it’s quite fitting that when I finally saw Gravity it was in 3D; I’ve come full circle.

Gravity, of course, looked a lot better, but in a way it was very similar to the Cruise-narrated documentary; much was made of its looks (and the 3D) to the detriment of the story behind it. And don’t get me wrong, Gravity is a beautiful film. But the script has a few good lessons worth highlighting for a writer of any genre.

Careful, there are spoilers in low orbit…

Don’t Let Reality Interfere

Gravity is careful to be scientifically accurate. But when science gets in the way of the story, the Cuaróns weren’t afraid to ignore it. In practice there’s no real possibility of an astronaut just hopping from space shuttle to space station to space station. But that would have severely limited the story opportunities, and so the writers ignored reality in favour of the plot.

Make a Character’s Death Mean Something

Gravity kills on two occasions. The first kills a bunch of nameless characters to illustrate the danger of the situation and to leave astronauts Stone and Kowalski stranded.

The second kills Kowalski. This is a character you care about. Sure it could be Clooney’s rugged charm. But the writers also took time to show us his stories, his little dreams, and how much he tries to help Stone.

Kowalski’s death is working overtime. It reminds the audience that no one is safe, not even characters they like. It removes Stone’s last source of aid and comfort. And it further complicates her relationship with death.

No Place to Hide

Gravity is a perfect, if extreme, example of motivating characters to move on. At no point can your characters find a place, in the world or in their head, where they can find any permanent peace. Sure it’s good for them to catch their breath, as Stone does when she reaches the ISS. But if the ISS was too safe, the story would have ended. Stone would have waited for rescue or she would have hopped in a Soyuz and cruised back home.

Each point Stone reached was either perilous before she got there or became so shortly afterwards. This prompted her to keep moving and the story moved with her.

The Importance of Death and Rebirth

Gravity offers a very clear and literal interpretation of this stage of the Hero’s Journey. Stone settles down to die only to receive a heavenly visitation from the dead Kowalski. She then regains consciousness with the knowledge necessary to save herself and she makes her peace with the death of her daughter.

Ultimately your character has to be flawed at the beginning of your story. They don’t have to be a broken mess. But they cannot be the hero, not yet. It’s only when they go through the death and rebirth stage that they gain the quality necessary to defeat the antagonist.

Did you learn anything from Gravity? Or do you disagree with any of what I’ve said? Leave a comment!

Writing Lessons From The Hobbit

I wasn’t a fan of The Hobbit. There, I said it. I loved Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, but The Hobbit felt bloated, poorly paced and, quite frankly, it bored me. But there’s writing tips in everything, even ill-judged sequel/prequel trilogies.

It’s got spoilers in its pocketses, preciousss…

Don’t Overwhelm the Audience with Characters

There’s a lot of dwarves in The Hobbit and they’re all introduced in a matter of minutes. Even if their names weren’t similar that’s a lot for the audience to take in. Try to ease your audience in or, if that’s not possible, remind them who’s who throughout the story.

Give Your Audience What They Need, Not What They Want

The work that Jackson and co. did on Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was unsurpassed. A sequence in The Hobbit was expanded to give the people what they wanted: more Gollum. But he didn’t reach his former glory because he just didn’t have enough to do to warrant his screen time. Had Peter Jackson limited Gollum to a cameo, the audience would have been left wanting more. That leads me into:

Exercise Restraint

As you write your story you may fall in love with the kooky wizard who talks to animals more than he does people. But what is he doing to move the story along? If the answer is “not a lot”, get out the red pen and cut the scene where he tends to hedgehogs. You’ll hate to see it go but your audience will thank you for it.

Clarify the Hero’s Motivations

Bilbo’s decision to join the dwarves on their journey is pivotal to the story. Yet the film doesn’t really explore why he joins them. There’s a brief reference to his younger self being a lover of adventure. But the decision itself seems abrupt and baseless and so the rest of the story is based on a whim. If your hero takes action, make sure it gets explained at some point.

Let the Heroes Be Heroic

It seemed that when the dwarves encountered a problem (be it trolls or warg riders or goblin kings) they never escaped through their own wits. They escaped via a deus ex machina (be it Gandalf, elves, Gandalf again). Consequently they all seemed weak and unable to determine their own fate. Allow your heroes to save themselves once in a while.

But who knows? Perhaps I’ll look fondly back on The Hobbit when they make six Silmarillion films?

Writing Lessons from One Fan at Hard Rock Calling

There were plenty of banners at Bruce Springsteen’s concert at Hyde Park, song titles held above heads in an effort to persuade him to play them. He’s known to do it and so their efforts aren’t in vain. But one man had put in so much effort it actually moved me.

This man was holding up a banner asking Springsteen to play “Take ‘Em As They Come”, an obscure track, and the banner also had the following list:

Sevilla
Barcelona
Donostia
Madrid
Paris
London

These were all the concerts the man had attended, a testament to cost, distance and devotion, in an effort to get Springsteen to play the song he loved. So Springsteen granted him his wish. The man is so happy it’s quite moving.

The moral? Never stop asking. Because one day the answer might be yes.

Writing Lessons from Joss Whedon

With the frankly wild and unexpected success of The Avengers, Joss Whedon has never been held in such high esteem (not even when he was helming Buffy). But he’s long been the king of the geeks and I swore fealty a long time ago. He’s one of the few TV writers that I will always follow, and therefore worth paying attention to. So here’s what I think writers can learn from Joss Whedon.

Kill the one they love

One of Joss’ staples and yet it works every time. Loveable supporting character are never long for the world. And it’s always supporting characters, perhaps because they’re easier to love; it’s more permissible to have a two-dimensional, all-good supporting character. But killing this character off ups the stakes and increases the tension; if the writer could kill that awesome character, they could kill anyone!

Make dialogue a strength

Whedon’s true trademark is zippy dialogue, usually with plenty of banter but also laden with character and exposition without being dry. Dialogue is by far easier to read on the page and it’s more natural for people to talk about what’s going on than have pages of deep, info-dumping thoughts. Remember, too, what the characters don’t say; that can speak volumes.

It’s easy to get dialogue wrong, so listen to other people’s conversations and take notes (try to be discreet or you may lose some friends).

Challenge yourself

After hearing for the umpteenth time how much someone liked his dialogue, Whedon wrote an episode of Buffy where everyone loses their voice. After making his name in supernatural dramas Buffy and Angel he made the sci-fi space western Firefly. It’s easy to stick to what you know and what people love. But stretching yourself keeps your work from becoming staid and repetitive; two words no-one wants to see in their reviews!

What else can writers learn from Joss Whedon? Or do you think they can’t learn anything at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment!

Writing Lessons from George Lucas

Last week I mentioned the three last-minute books I bought before I embarked on No More Books 2012. But now I have a confession to make: I was lying.

There was one other book.

That book was Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

A friend of mine called this purchase the geekiest thing he had ever heard. And he’s a huge geek himself. But I don’t care. I love stuff like this, the behind-the-scenes of the writing. It’s a chance to see how other writers work, a chance to examine how they do things and to learn from them.

To prove it, here’s three things I’ve learnt from the geekiest purchase ever.

Steal From Other Stories If Need Be

“I have a bad feeling about this”, a line which ended up in every Star Wars film, was originally in the script for Indiana Jones. But Lucas felt it would work better in Star Wars, so he took it out of Indiana Jones’ mouth and placed it in Luke Skywalker’s. If you’ve an idea that would work great in one project but you originally envisaged it in another, don’t protect one and hurt both. You need to make this current project as strong as it can be.

Remove Characters With Nothing To Do

In earlier drafts, Lucas didn’t kill Obi-Wan. But he found he was making no contribution to the film after the escape from the Death Star. Alec Guinness was going to be very expensive set dressing. So he killed him off.

If a character is a good one, killing them off should feel like a loss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the story. Sometimes it’s a gain.

Don’t Be Precious; Change Whatever You Need to Make It Work

Lucas’ first treatment was radically different to the final film. About the only things that remain from treatment to screen are an empire, a rebellion, a force and a few names. Luke Skywalker was Annikin Starkiller. Obi-wan was after a Kiber crystal. Darth Vader was a bit part.

No writer should be afraid of the red pen, even if it causes the end result to be almost unrecognisable from the first plot outline. If it’s making things better, it can only be a good thing.

(Bonus Lesson: If you’re tempted to create a Jar Jar Binks? Don’t.)

Writing Lessons from Da Vinci

Having been to the National Gallery’s Da Vinci exhibit, one of the things that struck me is the number of works he left unfinished. St Jerome in the Wilderness. The Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. They weren’t interrupted by illness or death; they were abandoned.

Da Vinci is often used as an example of the polymath, someone who has a number of different, often unrelated skills. As a child, he would show impatience, wanting to move into another field of learning rather than focus on the task at hand. At first I thought this might explain his incomplete works; a lack of focus.

I spend a lot of time searching for information about writing and publishing. I always have. And the advice being given has changed a lot. It used to be “write”. Now it’s “write, network, build a platform, be a brand”. Writers are now required to be polymaths: writers, marketers and sales people in one.

You probably expect me to launch into something about my deciding not to divide my attention, that it’s more important to focus on my writing than try to be a writer cum marketer cum networking guru. But you’d be wrong.

A lack of focus may have not have helped Da Vinci, but being a polymath didn’t mean that he failed to finish works. It meant those he did finish were all the better. Yes, they started with paint, but then folded in Maths and anatomy and engineering. There’s no point in a platform with no book, yes, but the reverse is equally true. Trying to combine many different skills into one endeavour is not only fun but, I think, a recipe for success if it’s tempered with focus.

It’s debatable whether a jack of all trades is a master of none. But it’s certainly true that he can knock up a good painting while designing an ornithopter.

Writing Lessons from Writing A Novel

There’s no greater writing teacher than writing itself. An ironic statement for a blog post about writing lessons, isn’t it? But I’ve learnt a lot from the novels I’ve written, they were lessons learnt the hard way. By sharing them here, perhaps I can help you avoid the uphill struggle I had. That way you’ve got more time for your own hard-learnt lessons!

Stop In The Middle

Blank pages are scary. Ask any writer. A blank page is a demand, a paralysis of choice, a possibility of failure. Should I start with dialogue? Set the scene? Describe a character? Which word do I use? Even if you’re not too concerned about a blank page, it does demand a beginning to the creative process. But if half the sentence if already there? All you’ve got to do is finish it.

Starting a writing session with a new chapter can elicit similar symptoms to blank page syndrome. You’ve got the same list of questions, only on a smaller scale. So I try to finish at a specific time. This usually means that I end mid-scene. It’s easier to pick up where you left off if the energy of the scene is already set, rather than having to create it all from scratch.

Don’t Stop

Sometimes I’ve found myself writing and realised I need a character or place name I didn’t account for. My first instinct was to stop and think up the name there and then. That was wrong. It ate up my writing time and ended up with a word count of 24 for the day. Now I just write in NAME or PLACE or even XXX and carry on. Sometimes the scene itself suggests the name and does the work for me. If it doesn’t, I can think up the name whilst queuing for groceries or sitting in the office, and my word count goes unhampered.

Forget About The First Chapter

And the second, third, and so on. The beginning of the story will not be good. You’re still finding your voice, your way, your characters. By the time you finish the novel the first few chapters will be hopelessly irrelevant, full of needless backstory, clunky lines and narrative dead-ends.

Don’t worry about it. Don’t go back and change it halfway through. Don’t rewrite it, don’t mess with it, don’t look back. Finish the first draft. It doesn’t matter how much you polish chapter one if the rest of the novel goes unwritten.

Your Outline Is Not a Bible

There are two schools of thought colloquially known as the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters create outlines and plans before they start writing. Pantsers dive right in and figure it out on the fly. Neither one is right or wrong and I’ve used both techniques. For my most recent novel I plotted and outlined and created a clear goal for the narrative and a plan on how to get there.

Halfway through, half of it had gone out the window.

Had I wasted my time? Should I have stuck closer to the plan? Not at all. Because as I was writing I realised that the story was tugging me in an unexpected direction. Yes, my plot was going to change. But knowing what the story wasn’t going to be helped me realise what it needed to be. And it’s much better for it.

Urinate

Or eat or drink or sleep. There’s zero point in trying to write when any of these urges are tugging at you. It’s like trying to recite your times tables whilst being poked with a stick. It’s distracting and your work will be sub-par. Sort your body out and you can write distraction-free.

Don’t Overpopulate

This has happened to me a few times: you sit down to write one day and realise you’ve forgotten about a character for two whole chapters. Or you realise there’s just nothing for them to do. Somewhere along the way, they became superfluous to requirements. And I’ve spent too much time trying to find something for them to do or some way to make them relevant again.

Don’t waste that time. Cut them from the story. If they had one or two beats or quirks central to the story, combine them with another character. That will create a single, deeper character rather than two shallow ones with not enough to do.

Kill Your Darlings

This is a cliche of writing advice but it’s a cliche because it’s true. There will be characters, settings, scenes, even sentences that you just love but aren’t pulling their weight or, worse, dragging your novel down. Cut them. Hate to see them go. Cry or curse or sulk. But don’t leave them in. I had an entire novel go down the tubes because I kept so many darlings it pulled the whole thing under the surface. By that point it was too late to save it.

Identify Your Crutches

We all have something we lean on when we write. You may notice you tend towards writing more description than exposition, or more action than emotion. It’s dialogue for me. I can write pages and pages of dialogue and sometimes the rest of the story suffers under the weight of it. I know dialogue is a crutch. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think I have a good ear for it. But knowing it means I can address it in second draft and edits and means the finished novel won’t rely too heavily on it. Although that doesn’t mean it still won’t tend towards talky-talk!

Starting is the Hardest Part

There are struggles in writing a novel. Plots can knot and twist and turn to ash. Characters can seem empty and unsympathetic. Dialogue can ring false. But all that is dwarfed by the struggle to sit down and write.

There’s always a reason not to write today, whether it’s the rubbish that needs taking out or the difficult scene you want to get your head around first. Worse, every problem or question with the manuscript is amplified by the mind when you’re not at the page. But you won’t solve a scene by waiting for a muse and you can’t finish a novel by not writing it. Sit down. Write. You might not even like what you’re writing. But get it down. You can always fix it later.

What have you learnt from your own writing? Or have you learnt something that contradicts any of this? Leave a comment!