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.

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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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