Dissection for a Good Review

In the writing classes I teach, when we cover analysis and argument, we discuss the importance of how and why. As with any lesson, the challenge is making the concepts tangible, finding concrete examples that will have my students going, “I get it! That makes total sense.”

Thanks to a few vague kitchen product reviews, an unfortunate purchase, and a simple-but-elegant mechanism, I think I can now prove the essentialness of how and why.

Last weekend, I bought oat groats. I had never even seen what they look like, but in reading about rolled oats versus steel cut oats, it suddenly struck me that it was another case of “this OR that” and I abandoned both in favor of flaking my own oats for the freshest possible oatmeal.

Um, only trouble? Equipment. I’m not sure how pioneers and others rolled their oats, but when I searched how to do it, I found relatively few options. The reviews I read made them all sound more or less equal for flaking oats, as in “they all get the job done, no problems,” so I bought the cheapest one and figured that would do it. After all, I only need to roll about a cup of oats at a time for oatmeal. No sweat.

Oh, not so. That cheapest roller (cheap at $45 — still a large chunk of money!) arrived in the mail last Monday, and it felt too light, too flimsy. It rolled the oats, but they were thicker than I expected (even though I’m used to old-fashioned oats) and half the time I’d be turning the crank and nothing would be coming through because all the groats were jammed at the top, refusing to be squashed between the rollers. I had figured it would take five minutes or less to roll a cup of oats. With that thing, in five minutes I only had a third of a cup.

Hubby happened to walk into the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. as I was trying to get the oatmeal ready for breakfast. I also had wheat berries grinding in my Family Grain Mill powered by my KitchenAid stand mixer, and Hubby’s astute observation was, “Why can’t you use that thing for oats, too?”

“Because the oat roller attachment for that costs twice as much as this thing.”

“But if you’re going to use it all the time and have this big a headache every time, isn’t the more expensive one worth it?”

Bless husbands who can say such things! Neither of us likes to spend money, and I’d been trying to be frugal, but I am so glad he nudged me toward a better quality purchase.

Yesterday I drove to a Bosch Kitchen Center and bought the display model flaker mill (they were out of boxed ones, and I was thrilled to get a discount for the used version). It was heavy in a good way — substantial, quality — and I was excited to test it out.

Today I hooked it up to my hand crank (too lazy to drag out the KitchenAid for just a cup of oats), and it worked marvelously: a steady stream of thinly rolled oats poured out of the bottom.

Then I dismantled it and discovered the difference.

In the cheap unit, how it worked was that two rollers turned toward each other on the theory that they would pull the oats down between them and squash them, but that had a number of problems. Why? First of all, you could only get the oats as thin as the space between the rollers, but if the rollers were too close together the oats would never go down between them in the first place. That’s why I kept turning the crank and sometimes got a few, sometimes none, because you had to wait until the textured grip of the rollers caught each groat just right.

In my higher quality version, one roller presses the oats against a steel plate, the space between the roller and the plate narrowing to create a funnel that forces the oats down at an even pace. 

Smarter design, improved function.

So here’s my writing analogy of the week: to really figure out what makes something better — whether you’re reviewing kitchen equipment or a movie or novel, etc — you have to take it apart and figure out how and why it works.

If I’d come across a review explaining to me the difference between the $45 model and the $80 (used) model, I wouldn’t have bothered with the cheap one in the first place.

I’m not a reviewer myself, but what I appreciate about book or movie reviewers who do their job well is that they don’t just sum up the story and whether or not they liked it, but they dissect it and describe the how and the why.

For example:

How does the writer keep the audience hooked?

  • With gimmicky tension created by withholding information or tossing characters into ridiculous and unreasonable situations? (**cough, cough** The Proposal, where they invented an excuse to have Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds run into each other naked.) 
  • Or with genuine tension based on realistic circumstances and situations that explore character through difficult decisions? (Every amazing book I’ve ever read, but first movie example that comes to mind: Gladiator, where Russell Crowe is pitted against the last wishes of a soon-to-be-murdered emperor and the power-hungry delusions of the emperor’s love-starved and emotionally unstable son — not to mention fighting for his very life, his family’s life, and the well-being of the whole country and a woman he cares for.)

Why does the writer include certain elements?

  • To fit a formula — whether a popular trend or a genre “recipe”? (Again, I’m going to pick on romantic comedies that create certain characters just to have the “nerdy best friend” and other formulaic roles filled.)
  • Or to serve a purpose unique to that story? (I’m thinking of books like Whirligig where the author makes the main character unlikable, normally a sin in novel-writing, in order to show the enormous change he undergoes in the course of the story.)

By including how and why, the reviewer helps me anticipate whether or not that movie or book or kitchen gadget will work for me. Maybe I like certain genre formulas and so a movie with a nerdy best friend will be perfect for me. Maybe I don’t like the tension of realistic drama and would rather have the gimmicks so I can just be entertained. Maybe I’m not going to use an oat roller very often and so waiting for the groats to squash between two rollers is fine with me due to the price difference.*

Also, as a writer, analyzing the how and the why of my own story is absolutely the key to improving it. How would my character react in this situation? Why is this scene crucial?

Anyhow, you get the idea. Any thoughts? Run across any great reviews lately?

Leave a comment!

*In case anyone’s interested, here is the rest of the price story: even at Costco, I felt like I was paying way too much for relatively few rolled oats. With the oat groats (which I bought in a 50# bag from a grain distributor for $28), it’s not only fresher — no chance of being rancid — but 1/2 cup of groats rolls into 1 cup of oats, so I’m getting twice as much for the same price. This means that even my $80 gadget will pay for itself pretty quickly since we eat oatmeal twice a week and I make my own granola. Hooray for tools that provide both better health and spending!

Scattered Plotlines

I remember reading an interview with Libba Bray about A Great and Terrible Beauty where she said that after finishing one of the early drafts she realized the main love interest vanished for over a hundred pages in the middle! Like, not literally vanished because of some magical apparatus or whatever, but vanished because she’d forgotten to include him in more scenes.

Similarly, I’ve had readers mention that some of my plot arcs become M.I.A. in the middle of my latest draft. I have a decent excuse — there’s a lot of other major stuff happening in the middle — but it is true that I can’t just drop plotlines and pick them back up later. They’re all supposed to weave together through the novel and, you know, arc.

It’s a little tough to arc if the line drops out altogether for a while.

I’m thinking this probably comes from my lack of outlining. I’m a fairly organic writer, feeling my way through the story. But at some point (oh, say draft four) it’s necessary to get organized.

So yesterday I listed every scene in every chapter and labeled them (so the second scene in Chapter 5 would be Scene 5b, etc). Then I created a table listing my plotlines (at least one for every character, pretty much) down the side and chapters across the top, plopping the scenes into the intersections. 

Tedious? Yes. Helpful? Definitely. Seeing it visually like that was eye-opening.

Sorry to be a little secretive by cutting off the names of the plotlines, but notice how bad that sixth one (a blue line) is. I’d built it up nicely in the first five chapters only to have it disappear until Chapter 20! Oops. And the one under that I’d introduced briefly and then ignored until seven chapters later that plotline hits a crisis moment with readers not even remembering it was a thing (or so they’ve told me). And the last one’s pretty bad, too.

It’s not like I want every plotline to show up in every chapter. That would just be overkill. But there should be some kind of development (build up) for each plotline at least every third chapter or so and probably all of the plotlines should appear multiple times right before and during the climax to make that climax nice and complicated in a pleasantly tangled way.

Moral of the story? Well, a little organization goes a long way. I’d been wondering what scenes to work on next, and now I can see exactly where I need to either add new scenes or weave these plotlines into the existing scenes.

What works for you when you need to get organized? Outlines? Notebooks? Index cards? Three-ring binders?

Leave a comment!

Avoiding Cluelessness: Self Evaluating and Revision

Last night I showed a clip from the movie Clueless to my intermediate class, and some of my students began to question why I even own that dvd, let alone know it well enough to choose a clip from it.

“What?” they asked. “Did you have your husband watch it with you last weekend or something?”

I laughed. No, I hadn’t watched it recently, but come on — Clueless is a classic. Why shouldn’t I own it?

Okay, in reality, I didn’t think of that answer on the spot. I told them I probably got it out of a $5 bargain dvd bin. I also didn’t think to tell them that, hello!, Clueless is a young-adult retelling of Emma, which makes it dang cool.

But anyway. What I showed them, and what I would show here if I weren’t so clueless with video editing (if it’s not already on YouTube, I don’t know how to put it there), is the part where Cher starts to figure out that something is wrong. She walks around questioning why it should bug her that her step-brother likes her friend, and then — as a fountain and lights come to life behind her — she has the epiphany that she likes Josh.

I don’t stop there, though. I show the awkward scene with Cher and Josh where she has no clue how to act around him, then where she goes and gets advice from her dad, followed by Cher thinking about what makes her friends likeable people and finally deciding on a course of action to make herself more likeable.

In other words, it’s a series of scenes where Cher goes through the revision process, once again proving that movies can explain the world of writing time and again.

Revision is actually a process of evaluation, and the steps Cher goes through to figure out how to remake herself are also the steps we go through to remake a piece of writing:

  1. Recognize that something is “off”
  2. Question possibilities to zero in on the issues
  3. Identify the underlying problem
  4. Brainstorm solutions
  5. Consider obstacles
  6. Seek advice
  7. Compare with others to get ideas
  8. Choose a solution
  9. Act
  10. Re-evaluate (repeat steps 1–10 as necessary)

My students pointed out plenty of tips for making these steps as effective as possible:

  • In order to even recognize something is “off” you need to reread your own writing, maybe out loud so you can hear what’s not working.
  • You need to think ahead about things like your purpose and your audience — especially about what objections your audience might have — so that you can consider those issues.
  • When you get down to step six, seeking advice, they all agreed that there’s helpful feedback and there’s not-so-helpful feedback, and to make the most of it you need to clue your critiquer in about what kind of help you need, and then you need to sift through the advice they give you and decide what will work best for you.
  • Comparing with others is all about reading as many examples of similar writing as you can to figure out what works.

These are probably pretty basic steps for most writers, but still. This blog is partially about dissecting the writing process, and I think this breakdown is worth a glance. Revision is hard; it’s a multi-step process; it’s a process of questioning and comparing and trial-and-error.

What do you think about revision? What strategies have you discovered that make it most effective for you? What advice would you give to novice writers about evaluating their own writing?

Leave a comment!

Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part III

Sentence Fluency and Conventions

(If you’re just tuning in on this series, be sure to check out Part I: Ideas and Organization and Part II: Voice and Word Choice!)

What I love about blogging is the chance to really explore ideas about writing. This series has been a fun way to make comparisons between movies and writing and see what surfaces! What can movies teach us about the six traits?

For sentence fluency, I think one answer lies in a little experiment of observation. As you watch this clip below, I want you to NOTICE the cuts. The reason I say it that way is because usually we don’t — unless the film editors have done a poor job. Usually the cuts are so natural that we easily shift from one angle to the next. But if you force yourself to notice, you can observe a lot about how they make it smooth, I think.

For one thing, did you notice how Harold (Will Ferrell) walking around the store creates a sense of flow? If each shot had cut straight to him already in front of each guitar, if would have worked okay, but it would be more jarring. Instead, they cut one angle as he starts to move away from a guitar and then pick up the next angle as he’s walking toward a new one. It creates flow between the shots, and the cuts become nearly invisible, leaving us to focus on the meaning of how the scene impacts the story.

Sentences in writing have to be the same way. They have to flow so smoothly that we hardly notice them — unless to occasionally notice a sentence as breathtaking as a beautiful shot in a movie. Other than that, the sentences should simply be working together to gradually, piece by piece, feed us a story.

Here are two examples I love — books that pull you into the flow of the sentences from the first page. Notice the first won the Newbery and the second won the Pulitzer, so I’m not the only one who thinks the writing’s good here.

From Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008):

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

From Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004):

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’d had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this — it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then — I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

What I think both of these do so well, among many, many other things, is that they pull us into the story, sentence by sentence, and show us piece by piece what’s going on. Every sentence builds on the one before it to bring the picture into focus. Neil Gaiman doesn’t tell us there was a murderer on the stairs, and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t bother to tell us who “I” is or “you.” They build their story one sentence at a time like camera angles, showing us one shot smoothly followed by another angle until the scene is clear.

The last thing that’s left, then, is conventions.

For that, I want to show you the work a company called Imaginary Forces did for the movie (500) Days of Summer. Anybody’s who’s seen the movie probably remembers these animation sequences, just brief shots of the same cityscape over and over with the seasons and weather changed to fit the mood of the story and the number telling us what point in the story we were at (since the organization isn’t chronological).


Conventions in writing are like everything that happens after the shots have been pieced together. These scene-change animations were some of the very last things to be done on the movie. Once all your shots are put together — all your sentences strung — you then have to make every detail perfect. Yes, this means every comma in the right spot and all those sorts of decisions, like making sure the boom mic isn’t hanging down into any of the shots. But it also means creating the visual appeal of the writing.

Sometimes, it even means breaking with “conventional” conventions and trying something a little different that might make meaning clearer, like the split-screen scenes in (500) Days of Summer where Tom’s expectations play on one side, amping up the heartbreak. 

Lest we think this only happens in movies, though, think about how it works in novels. Publishers have design teams that choose the font and the layout of the pages and the look of the cover and all of that. I’ve seen some books where the designers had to use layout to make the story clearer, such as by adding to the margins the name of the character currently narrating (as in Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped).

Or think of how Stephenie Meyer in New Moon has four pages in a row with only one word on them: the name of a month. It’s not conventional — certainly not the norm — but it’s a convention that is very effective for that story.

(I’ve heard they use that convention in the movie, too, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

But again I have to reiterate that conventions are about appeal as well as clarity. Publishers make books aesthetically appealing the same way Imaginary Forces makes the scene changes of the five hundred days look appealing.

One book I just finished this week — Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor — is an especially great example of visual appeal. If you get the chance to flip through it at a book store or library or whatever, do. Christopher Stengel did an amazing job on the design — from the spine and flaps of the jacket to red borders and drop caps — and that combined with Jim di Bartolo’s gorgeous illustrations and Laini’s incredible writing made me want to keep opening the book again and looking at it some more, which led to reading it some more and feeling like I had something truly beautiful in my hands.

As lone writers (i.e. those of us without publishing teams yet), we make decisions about presentation, too. We put our manuscripts into the professional-looking “manuscript format”; we design our blogs to look appealing by choosing colors and font sizes and images that we think will help draw people in. And yes, we put commas and semicolons and all those other things in the best places, and proofread for typos, mostly so that no one will be distracted by a boom mic dropping down.

After all, the point of all these six traits is that you start with the most important one — ideas — and you work your way through, perfecting the rest down to the tiniest conventions so that, with all the details in place, your audience will be drawn to your ideas through all the other traits.

What do you think? How have movies helped you understand good writing and storytelling? What books have drawn you right in with the flow of the sentences or even just the look of them? I’d love to know what you’ve observed, and what you think of this series. Thanks for reading and being part of my somewhat-rambling explorations!

Leave a comment!

[UPDATE: Just for some nice irony and to show the importance of having someone else proofread, I want to note that my hubby found a typo in this post the day after I published it. I honestly proofread many, many times before publishing. I had, however, failed to utilize spell-check, and that showed three additional typos. So (a) even English teachers aren’t perfect, and (b) conventions need an extra set of eyes, the first of which should be spell-check!]

Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part II

Voice and Word Choice

Have you ever thought about how movies teach you how to write well? There’s the screenwriting itself, but there’s also so much else to explore! Start with the intro segment to this series, if you haven’t already, and then let me show you some of my favorite examples of voice and word choice.

Juno, which won an Oscar for Diablo Cody’s brilliant screenwriting, is, I think, the perfect way to begin pairing movies and writing in regard to voice. Just check out the trailer!

Juno MacGuff has a voice like no other, and if you’ve ever struggled to pinpoint what voice in writing means, I think watching Juno is a decent way to help figure it out.

Voice, to me, is pretty much viewpoint, personality, and tone squashed together. It’s what gives a piece of writing its overall feel. When we tried to break it apart, my intermediate students and I came up with four traits of what good voice is:

  • strong
  • appealing
  • appropriate
  • consistent

I’ve heard a few dissenters claim that Juno‘s voice is too unrealistic, too exaggerated, but I actually think over-the-top can be awesome, so long as it meets the four criteria above.

For example, many of my students chose to do a satire for their third writing assignment, and satire is meant to be over-the-top. When I gave them feedback, I pointed out things like whether or not satire was appropriate for their topic, whether or not the way they handled it was appealing, whether or not it was a strong way to make their point, and whether or not they maintained a consistent tone throughout the piece so as not to throw off the feel of it.

That’s not to say that being consistent means you can’t pull off the whole range of emotion from funny to tragic. Juno manages to do exactly that. I cry every time I watch it, and I get angry at a certain character who will not be named (since it’d be a spoiler), and I laugh my head off at so many things Juno and other characters say. But somehow all of those disparate emotions still seem to fit in the movie because they’re all brought together from the same sort of quirky, complex point of view. Juno’s point of view.

Obviously, voice involves word choice. When you watch Juno, the choice of words stands out and creates the unique texture of the voice. It’s why Juno is possibly my favorite movie to just listen to, like if I want something on while I crochet. That’s one of the reasons that even though voice is one of the big, global considerations (along with ideas and organization), I chose to pair it with word choice for this movie series.


Separating voice as the overarching feel and word choice as the specific, detailed bits of texture is what helps me distinguish the two. Big considerations have to come first, and then you can have fun sprinkling the details.

Think about the wardrobe in a movie. I don’t know a ton about the process, but I’d imagine you can’t create the costumes until you have actors chosen to wear the costumes (so you know sizes!), and you choose actors based on the feel you want for the piece, and that feel is then reinforced by the wardrobe.

The actors (& their acting skills) create the voice; how you dress the actors (& the sets, etc) is like the word choice.

So, just like voice, word choice needs to be appropriate for the piece. You don’t want gladiators wearing tutus or Eliza Doolittle wearing a swimsuit or Juno MacGuff wearing a frilly dress and enormous hat covered in bows (unless you’re creating a parody). You have to find the words that fit, the words that create the texture you’re looking for.

my fair lady

Take these examples from some recently published young adult novels, and notice how the word choice pulls us into the texture of the setting the same way wardrobe and sets pull us into a movie scene.

maze runnerFrom James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009):

He heard noises above — voices — and fear squeezed his chest.

“Look at that shank.”

“How old is he?”

“Looks like a klunk in a T-shirt.”

“You’re the klunk, shuck-face.”

“Dude, it smells like feet down there!”

“Hope you enjoyed the one-way trip, Greenie.”

“Ain’t no ticket back, bro.”

Octavian NothingFrom M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party (2006):

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.

By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frockcoats of asbestos.

Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.

How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

blackbringerFrom Laini Taylor’s Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer (2007):

“How you holding up, my feather?” she asked the crow she rode upon, stroking his sleek head with both hands.

“Like a leaf on a breeze,” he answered in his singsong voice. “A champagne bubble. A hovering hawk. A cloud! Nothing to it!”

“So you say. But I’m no tiny sprout anymore, Calypso, and sure you can’t carry me forever.”

“Piff! Ye weigh no more than a dust mouse, so hush yer spathering. ‘Twill be a sore day for me when I can’t carry my ‘Pie.”

In each of these, as in Juno, the voice and the word choice pull me in. Just reading these excerpts makes me want to keep going! That’s the power of voice and word choice. They bring ideas to life as surely as actors, wardrobe and sets in a movie.

life-of-piAnd sometimes words can be so beautiful that you fall instantly in love. I still remember exactly where I fell in love with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001): page 19, where he says, “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

Yes! That’s exactly how I’ve felt about the way religion is viewed. And he found the words to express what I didn’t know how to before: the problem is “certain illusions about freedom.”

Now, of course, as Siamese Mom points out in her comment on Part I, “well chosen words alone do not make good writing.”

It’s like Will Ferrell’s character in Bewitched blaming the wardrobe department for the failure of his latest movie. Yeah, maybe the sherpa hats were ridiculous-looking, but even perfect costumes wouldn’t have made up for his terrible acting (the character’s, not Will Ferrell’s).

That’s why I love the six traits: they tell you what to focus on first but also what not to forget. You have to perfect ideas before you organize them, and then organize them before you can perfect the voice, and then perfect the voice before you can choose every word, etc. You have to go in order and make sure each piece is just right!

Any examples of voice or word choice from movies or books you’d love to share? What words have made you fall in love?

Click here to read the third installment: Sentence Fluency and Conventions.

Leave a comment!

Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part I

Ideas and Organization

Movie clips are possibly my students’ and my favorite teaching technique. For example, when I’m trying to get across why you need to consider your audience’s opinions BEFORE you make an argument (in persuasive writing), I show them the rainy scene from the Focus Features Pride and Prejudice where Darcy makes the claim that Lizzy should marry him with the reason that he loves her “most ardently” and the evidence is his agony.

And Lizzy says whoop-dee-doo.

Even if the dialogue runs super fast in that movie — super fast with British accents, no less — students get the idea: claim, reasons, and evidence aren’t enough if you haven’t considered the audience’s values. Lizzy isn’t the type to swoon at any old declaration of love. When he comes back with the letter, which addresses her objections, students see how much more effective it is at persuading Lizzy to trust him.

And the thing is that by seeing it and hearing it as a movie clip, students remember the concept better, I think. I mean, who’s going to forget a proposal that intense gone wrong? And hopefully, when they sit down to write their written arguments, they’ll think about their audience’s beliefs, opinions, values, objections, etc.

Last night I took it even further and tried to explain the six writing traits — ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions — in terms of movies.

For example, I asked them how often they’ve been enticed by the premise (the idea) of a movie, only to have it fail to meet those expectations. Yeah, they got that. And we came up with a list of what a movie — or, more importantly, a piece of writing — has to do as far as ideas:

  • excite/entice us
  • give us something/someone to care about
  • delve deep into the ideas (no shallow interpretations of the premise, whether humorous or dramatic)
  • deliver on expectations
  • resonate with us

Pixar has been great at this. Their saying is that “story is king.” I told my class about how Ratatouille was first pitched as a brilliant premise — a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef — in 2000, but by 2005 the storyline still wasn’t working for whatever reasons, and they had to revamp until they had story and characters — fiction’s biggest idea ingredients — that would deliver.

Even though Pixar and other computer animation studios do amazing things with the visual aspects of their movies, all of that would be no good without solid ideas first.

With organization, we decided to see if we could map out the structure of a formulaic romantic comedy:

  1. Introduce audience to lead characters separately. Show us what their life is like and what each person is “missing.”
  2. Have main characters meet. There should be attraction but also conflict. Something stops their relationship from instantly working out.
  3. Let them connect. There may be happy musical sequences involved with them staring into each other’s eyes, but there is still plenty of angst because we know the under-the-surface conflict hasn’t been resolved.
  4. Force them apart. The break-up is pretty much a standard of romantic comedies. The characters give up on love, tired of being hurt, all that jazz. It’s the hopeless moment.
  5. Provide a resolution. Obviously the audience wants to leave feeling good, so this is the part where the characters need to sympathize and apologize and compromise until everything works out and they are happy and complete and believe again in the possibility of love.

How does that help us understand organization? Well, there’s stuff like providing an introduction that lets us get to know the subject and a conclusion that gives direction and hope, but also the lesson of building tension. Organization is what makes the ideas move forward and keeps the momentum of the ideas going. And in order to have momentum, you have to have tension that builds toward a resolution.

Nifty, huh? Amazing what movies can teach you — even the formulaic ones.

What do you think? What movies have you seen that you loved or hated because of their success or failure with ideas or organization?

For me, the most recent example I can think of was watching The Reader. I left after half an hour because I did not care about the characters at all. (Maybe the problem was that I was fast-forwarding or closing my eyes through half of it, who knows? I’m still a little kid sometimes.) My hubby tells me it got really good after that, but I just couldn’t force myself to keep sitting through a movie I didn’t care about, and it taught me that I want to watch, read about, and write characters I can fall in love with.

This movies-and-writing trilogy continues with the sequel: Voice and Word Choice.

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