Thursday, July 14, 2011

What writers can learn from film

Like lots of other people, we've been on a Harry Potter film (and book) marathon at our house in anticipation of the final film. You should be able to guess from this blog that I'm a Potter fan, and I've just been fascinated by all the tidbits out there on the making of the films. I don't want to write screenplays and I don't have particular dreams of a book of mine ever being adapted for film. (Uh, if someday that happens, I'm not against it! But I don't think I've written a book that must become a film to this point, and really, books are my one true love.) However. Watching and reading about this stuff really sets off creative sparks in my brain. So here are some semi-random thoughts about writing that I've had from learning about film:

1. On adaptations. It's easy to get tied up in one and only one version. But it's actually possible to rearrange events and combine characters and still bulls-eye the heart of the story. Doubtful? See The Prisoner of Azkaban, book and film.

2. Atmosphere can change everything! Ever see the B version of a film? I don't just mean the basic acting on a green screen, where the background will be filled in via computer later. I was amazed to learn that you could film a scene and then change things like color and lighting afterwards. Remember the scene in Deathly Hallows part 1 where they're running through the forest and the chasers are after them? It's all very light in the original take. It's only afterwards that they darkened it and made it ominous. In writing, I think this whole coloration thing is voice. You can have the same plot events take place, but tell a very different story depending on your word choice or voice. The nice thing is, you can keep the basic events and try out different voices and tones and then pick the most effective one.

3. Likewise, editing. I'm fascinated by the fact that a person can be the principal actor in a film, yet have no idea what it's going to look like in the end. That's due to editing. Editing in film is I think a lot more of a creative process than in writing, where the editor is more of a guide and the author carries the bulk of the creative responsibility. In writing, the author does most of that. In both cases, a number of scenes are created, but in the editing process, you get to pick which ones need to stay in the final version, and in which order. Depending on what you show your audience, you can still tell very different stories. There's a lovely scene in Half Blood Prince that was cut (parts of it appear in the final film, but abbreviated) that would have revealed more about Snape than perhaps would be wise at this point of the story. Other times, a scene might be informationally or even emotionally nice (the exchange between Harry and Dudley in DH1), but a competing scene gets even stronger emotion across that has a longer-term effect for the whole story (the opening sequence as it stands in the final, with Hermione erasing her parents' memories). Those are hard choices, deciding which of two strong scenes to keep in. But getting them right can make all the difference in the world.

4. Feeling, believability, and loyalty. Rupert Grint is really an excellent actor, you know? He comes across as just a regular guy you might know from anywhere in real life, but he's really good at getting a range of emotions across in a way that you believe instantly and that you feel. As a result, you totally believe what's going on. You find yourself inside the characters' heads, wanting them to succeed. Obviously a lot of his method is film-specific; voice tone, facial expression, etc. In writing, you can't describe each tic of each facial muscle, or drip your dialogue tags with adverbs. What you've got to do, though, is somehow get inside your character's head and feelings to that same degree, so that when your MC is jealous, or depairing, or wildly in love, your reader feels that along with your character. It's a matter of interiority and voice and point of view. The way you do it in writing is different than in film, but in both, it's absolutely essential that you do it if you want your story to carry any sort of resonance with your reader/viewer.

What about you? Have you learned anything from film that translates to novel writing?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Books then and now

I've noticed a funny thing while browsing YA at my local library (new to me for the past 11 months). It's a rural area and a lot of the books are a) old or b) self-published/from a small press. Also, the whole thing skews rather young, with books I'd definitely put in MG shelved as YA (and a few books that really are adult stuck in YA as well, for some reason). There's a new children's/YA librarian and the library's just had an addition put on, with more room to look for new YA and MG. So there's hope for change. But it does give me insight into how much it's all changed since pre-Harry Potter days. And just how writing styles and techniques can go out of style in general.

1. Length. Whoa. 200 pages used to be normal for YA. Now it feels like a taste. It's not that the stories themselves are any longer. But the old ones feel waaaaay summarized.

2. Which brings us to show, don't tell. Some authors have always been this way. But a lot of the quick reads from pre-HP days are really bad about this. Today, after HP and Twilight and the like, kids want to feel like they're really there--they want to feel that the story is immediate and all around them, not summarized from a remote position. They want to be inside the characters' heads, not observing from the outside. Point of view is really important in YA especially!! There are still authors who write the old way, who have been publishing for a long time and just have kept on doing the same old thing. But if you compare what is "hot" today with what was "hot" in 1990, it's not the same thing.

3. Please pick names that aren't dated--especially when it's supposed to be contemporary and you're using names from your childhood. For example, Will is a great name for a boy today. Bill, a little 1950s/60s? I know, Bill Weasley! But they specifically have old-fashioned names. If you don't have a good reason like that...maybe check out the latest Social Security names list.

And finally, re: then vs. now: I recently ran across a post from a home schooler who seemed proud of never reading modern children's literature with her kids, only classics. I realize most people who stumble across this blog already love (current) books, and I also realize that schools are just as guilty of classics overkill. But you do realize this is the golden age of children's literature, don't you? That there are more high quality books on more varied subjects out there for kids now than EVER BEFORE? That many of these books ARE classics, and will be read many years from now? Has there EVER been a plot genius like Rowling? Would you really deprive your kid from the heart and wisdom of Kate DiCamillo or Ingrid Law or Cynthia Lord? Effortless Greek myths come back to life with Rick Riordan? The funny and frightening aspects of childhood and first love as seen by Wendelin van Draanen? Meeting tragedy with humor with Lindsey Leavitt? Meeting real kids from very different cultures through Trent Reedy? I could write pages and pages about all the wonderful books that have been published since you were a child that are filled with humor, wisdom, courage, heart, insights into other people, etc. Charlotte's Web is a wonderful book, but if you haven't read anything since then, then get thee to the new book shelf at your library. Talk to a librarian. Maybe let your kid pick something out that looks interesting instead of only letting them pick something off your classics list. Who knows? Maybe you'll find a favorite new author, too.