What a novelist can learn from the movies

It’s almost eight months since I published my first novel and I’ve only just written the opening scene of my second novel.  It might seem a long time in planning, but I haven’t been working on it full time and I wanted to make sure that I had the right story and I understood my plotline and characters before I got started.  Knowing how I would start the story was easy; figuring out how it would end was much more complex.

Imagine that you were asked to plot the end scene of Star Wars, without knowing the detail of what came before.  You know the good guys are going to win and the death star will be destroyed, but how will they do it? Or if you’re writing a romance, you know the hero and heroine will get together, but how will it happen?  Endings are perhaps the most difficult to plan-ahead and outline.  Yet without some idea of the ending it is impossible to prepare a workable plot outline.  Of course, we could always write the end scenes first; there is no reason why any novel should be written chronologically.  But I suspect there are few authors that actually do it that way in practice.  (Let me know if you do!)

Recently, I read about a famous crime fiction author who said he never knew which character was the murderer until he had finished his first draft.  That’s real organic writing or ‘pantsing’.  And he’s not the only famous writer who has confessed to not knowing his ending before starting their first draft.  Of course, there are many writers, who don’t outline their work because they see it as unnecessary or too restrictive.  To them story telling may be as instinctive as riding a bike.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these master storytellers haven’t prepared, or haven’t thought deeply about their characters and story idea before they start; or for that matter that they don’t consider story structure when editing the next draft.  For lesser mortals that are still learning the craft of storytelling, some form of outline plan or story structure is helpful.

One of the fun ways of understanding story structure, oddly enough,  is by watching movies. Yes, it’s a very different  medium from writing, but movies are all about storytelling; and a novelist has to become a good storyteller.  Much like a novel, a movie is an emotional rollercoaster where for a short time we grow to empathise with the hero or heroine as they face the trials and tribulations of their story and at the end, if the movie is any good, we will end on an emotional high. How they produce this magic in 90-120 minutes of film-time, requires a great screenplay, great acting and direction, plus the odd $100 million or so.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of the great books on storytelling are directed at screenwriters and not at authors.  But many of those same books are just as relevant to authors of fiction.  Two of my favourites are ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder.  The latter book analyses the stories of many of the great blockbuster movies into their components or beats.  It’s a great read and if you haven’t already come across Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet before you will find it fascinating.  It will also change the way you look at movies.  Another great book is John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’, which takes a slightly different approach. Truby sets out a twenty-two step story structure that sets out the most dramatic way to tell your story.  Again a fascinating book and a lesson in story structure.

There are also some books aimed directly at authors of fiction that take ideas from the screen and apply them to the novel. Three  good examples are Alfie Thompson’s , ‘Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lovers Guide to Writing  a Novel’, and Alexandra Sokoloff’s  ‘Screenwriting Tricks for author’s’  and ‘Writing Love; Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’.  Each book does exactly what the titles suggest.

Now it’s time that I got back to writing that novel.