For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.
Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.
But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.
Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.
But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.
And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3…
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Tagged arc, Austin Film Festival, back-story, backstory, beginnings, character, craft, hook, inciting incident, Kristin Swenson, manuscript, Michael Arndt, pace, pacing, plot, process, protagonist, revision, scenes, screenwriting, story, structure, Toy Story, writing
This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.
For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.
She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.
So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.
Photo credit: mrhayata
Here is yesterday’s fabulous post from io9.com: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar, written by storyboard artist Emma Coats, with an intro from io9 editor Cyriaque Lamar. This hits so many elements of the craft, I’m posting it on the bulletin board over my writing desk. Thank you, Emma, and thank you to io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future. You can see the original article here, but in case it disappears from the cloud, I’ve pasted it below. And how fun—in the moment when I took this screen shot, it captured the fact that two of my Facebook friends also gave this article a thumb’s up. Go Clay and Clete!
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Tagged character, Clay McLeod Chapman, Clete Barrett Smith, craft, creativity, pace, Pixar, plot, process, revision, story, structure, theme, writing
It’s kill my darlings time. Major revisions a-comin’. Seasoned writers talk easily about it—the need to delete descriptions, characters and scenes that served a function during an early draft but later detract from the story as a whole. We wish it weren’t so. Wish that the first draft would work just the way it was. Wish the process weren’t so brutal.
Last week I enjoyed Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind for the second time, then viewed the deleted scenes with the commentary turned on. Talk about killing your darlings! Howard reflected on the way each cut enhanced the film’s dramatic tension. Some of the cut scenes were especially touching and well-acted, and some shed light on schizophrenia, the protagonist’s illness. But they slowed the pace, so they went. The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002.
Dramatic tension. Emotional arc. Pacing. I come back to these elements again and again. From my current work-in-progress, I just slashed an entire section in which a secondary character took center stage. I’m thankful for early-readers who identified problem spots I hadn’t seen. Which darlings will I cut next? Like Howard, I keep them in a “deleted scenes” folder. I fight off the lament—the disappointment—the fear—that I wasted my time writing them in the first place.
Here’s a snapshot of my cut-and-paste work on one section of the muddy middle. (I use Scrivener, but this revision was hard to picture until I laid it out across a bed.) I have to remind myself that writing those now-deleted scenes was a necessary part of the process. Even Ron Howard develops scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. And he blows a lot more time and money in his process than I do! Somehow I find that comforting. The creative process is nonlinear and sometimes maddening and frustrating and seemingly wasteful, but it is what it is. Either you love the process and accept it, or you’re better off doing something other than writing.
In mid-March, as I staffed the James River Writers (JRW) table at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, it occurred to me that the JRW Conference differs from the VA Festival in the way an MFA differs from an MA or PhD. The VA Festival is all about books and the JRW Conference, about the craft of writing. Of course, there’s an overlap. But it comes down to the difference between content and process, between analyzing literature and writing it.
I particularly enjoyed hearing Kekla Magoon talk about molding historical facts to heighten her protagonist’s struggle in The Rock and the River. But if Kekla were to speak at the JRW Conference, she might go into more depth about the challenges of the craft. She might note how she picked up the narrative pace in the fourth chapter by manipulating readers’ sympathies (her policemen characters beat up a boy, then charge the boy with resisting arrest). She might tell us how she wove setting into plot. She might talk about scenes added or deleted to enhance the story’s emotional arc.
It’s one thing to have a story to tell, and another to tell it well—to show up at the page every day in order to wrestle with the tense and pace and voice while developing characters and searching for the right structure. It’s one thing to love reading, and another to embrace the art and process of writing.
The VA Festival may not have showered me with tips on craft, but it drenched me in warm fuzzies. I staffed the JRW table with Meg Medina and caught up with writers who have spoken at the JRW Conference over the years—Clifford Garstang, Charles J. Shields, Bill Glose, Michele Young-Stone, Irene Ziegler. JRW members Linda Dini Jenkins, Kristi Austin, Beth Rogers and Judy Witt were there, as were conference-regulars Becky Mushko, Stephanie McPherson and Michelle Ehrich. I saw SCBWI colleagues Ellen Braaf, Kathryn Erskine, Valerie O. Patterson and Anne Marie Pace, and Vermont College alums Kekla Magoon, Tami Lewis Brown, Maha Addasi, Louise Simone and Winifred Conkling. JRW shared a table with Rose Esber, and Lee Knapp sold her fun, grammatically-correct ceramics. I’m already looking forward to VA Festival 2012.
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Tagged arc, books, conference, craft, historical, literature, pace, plot, process, scenes, structure, voice, writing
Voice. Sympathetic characters. Narrative pace. Dialogue tags. Emotional arcs. These are the sorts of topics we tackled at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In January 2011, I graduated from the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults there, and I’m going through serious withdrawal. Maybe blogging will help…
Vermont is a place where critique doesn’t mean line-edits, but means discussing theme and desire-lines and narrative structure and how a writer intensifies or slows the pace. It’s a place where students are encouraged to play while being pushed to write the novel that comes from the heart—the one only you can write because it’s so you—the one so personal and particular that it touches on the universal—on what it means to be human.
Vermont changed me. It changed my writing. It changed the way I read. During residencies, we called it our own little Narnia. Such a magical place. In this blog, I’ll only skim the surface, and will apologize in advance for my “you had to be there” tone which is so hard to block, because, well… yeah…