Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What we can learn from Genre films and TV shows

I've spent the day marking storyboards assessments at work, left at 7am, did two lectures, marked the rest of the day and got home at 7pm, so my brain is a bit fuzzy, but marking the storyboards made me realise how much we writers can learn from film. Sure it is a different medium but some things remain the same.

For instance, I tell the students that 13th Warrior is a good example of world building and introducing back-story by using a character who does not know the culture and has to have things explained to him.

Then there's what Peter Jackson did when he made the movies of Lord of The Rings. When I read the books to my kids I skipped whole chunks of travelogue and poetry. I read the meat of the story, the exciting adventures. And what Peter Jackson did was embed the back-story in the props (if you watch the special features you'll see how the designed the props to contain the history of each of the cultures).

He tightened up the story and he gave Faramir a story arc. In the book Faramir isn't tempted by the ring at all. In the extended version, he has a good reason to want the ring to win his father's love so he is tempted, which makes his refusal to take it from Sam and Frodo much more noble.And then we have Firefly, which is brilliant for so many reasons. There's great world building, embedded into the narrative. There are character arcs for all the different characters and Joss Whedon deliberately chose to use an ensemble cast because he said he liked to use the characters to bounce of each other. As each episode unfolds bits of back story are told by one character to another, so that the audience are told at the same time. The story is told with a leavening of humour, and it has realistic emotional reactions so the audience can engage with and worry for the characters.

It is set against a big backdrop but the story is intimate. It brings us close to the characters. I'm always telling my students to use Close Ups to show what the character feels and to make the viewer care about the characters. This is what we need to do as writers. We need to make the reader feel connected to the character. We need the readers to have an emotional investment in the characters so that they keep turning the page.

So there you have it. I've been marking storyboards all day, but at the same time I've been refining my sense of story and how to tell a story. So, do you get 'writer' revelations while watching films and TV shows?


Kate C Neal said...

After reading Truby's Anatomy of Story, I'm always looking for the 22 steps when I watch movies. I'm sure my husband really appreciates my commentary. :)

MataPam said...

I always notice the cliched starts. Please! Heroes don't have to lose their whole families before they can be awesome.

And some times I see possibilities the director didn't persue, and I start thinking about other ways the story could have gone.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Kate.

I teach the 12 steps of the Hero's Journey to my students. And since I started doing this I see them everywerhe!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I know just what you mean. How many movies start with a man losing everything?

And yes, I'm always going off an narrative tangents. I really love it when a writer or director can surprise me with their choice of narrative direction.

Chris L said...

Hi Rowena,

The thing I take away from movies is their brevity. When you see a book translated into a movie by a good team, it's really obvious.

The best example I can think of is to compare the first Harry Potter movie to the first Lord of the Rings movie because they were released at the same time.

Potter dragged on and tried to encompass every character and nuance of the book. I was disappointed. Rings was brief (compared to the book), highly distilled, directly to the point, and utterly engrossing.

I was surprised that I liked it so much.

This is why I love to see great adaptations. It's also the way I try to write.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris L,

Good point. The first couple of adaptions of the Harry Potter books were laboured. It wasn't until about the third of fourth one (I've lost track) that the new director freed himself from faithfully translating the book and truly adapted it.

The other thing I like to do is compare British and US versions of movies and TV series.

Stephen Simmons said...

Advertising my ignorance here ... what, exactly, does "storyboard" mean? I've heard the term several times, but I honestly don't know what it is.

Pam, I completely agree. Unless you're giving me someone as completely unfinished as Conan (and generally, even if you ARE), no one else's "lost everything" opening is never going to measure up to Thomas Covenant, so consider taking another tack on the opening ...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sorry, Stephen, this is what happens when you get too close to your work.

A storyboard is a series of panels, a bit like a comic strip, that the director of a film produces to help him plan the shots he is going to use.