In honor of the Academy Awards next Sunday, I have decided to write on one of my favorite subjects: movies. And while this blog is mainly a convenient excuse to discuss my favorite films of the year (see the list below), it is also an opportunity to discuss how to become a better novelists by watching movies. Before I wrote my first novel, I wrote several screenplays. None of them were very good, but writing them did teach me three things that proved very useful when I began to write novels. These are the same three things that every good movie has to teach.
First, visualize every scene you write. In film, the writer, director, and cinematographer work very hard to get the visuals just right because part of what makes movies great is the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle that they afford. The deserts in Lawrence of Arabia; the T-Rex dropping a goat leg on the car in Jurassic Park; the athletes running on the beach in Chariots of Fire: these are powerful images. Even without the benefit of cameras, novels can and should produce images that are equally powerful. When I write a scene, I always start with a very specific image in my mind of what it should look like. My characters are not just in a room; they are in a windowless room in which the dark stone walls are lit red by the light of a banked fire. Even if you are not going to describe it in detail, you should start every scene with a precise image in your mind—preferably one that looks cool. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get so caught up in dialogue or advancing the plot that you lose track of the setting. If you focus on visualizing each scene, your novel can be a “filmic” as a movie… and that’s a good thing.
Second, concentrate on action, not narration. In movies, action is everything. There is no internal dialogue. (Yes, movies can use voice-overs, but generally the more they are used, the worse a movie gets.) Everything must be shown, so plot and character are developed exclusively through action and dialogue. All novels do not need to replicate this: there’s nothing wrong with books like Crime and Punishment, which take place largely inside a character’s head. But if you want to write the sort of genre fiction that will land you on the best-sellers list—thrillers, historical epics, sci-fi, romance—then focusing on action and dialogue is the way to go. Get rid of narration. Don’t tell us that a character is sad; show us their tears. Don’t tell us that time has passed (i.e. “she spent months preparing the fields for planting”); give us one or two detailed scenes to show us what happened (struggling with the plow, for instance). Think of your novel like a movie: a series of scenes in which each one either develops character or advances plot.
Third, listen to what your characters say. I know that when I write, I’m often so wrapped up in getting a plot point across or in developing the arc of a scene that I lose track of what the dialogue sounds like. In movies on the other hand, when the dialogue is bad, it is painfully obvious. For all that I love Avatar, it is a perfect example. Some of the lines may have seemed fine on paper, but when spoken, they sound ridiculous. So take a tip from the movies and make sure to read your dialogue out loud after you write it. And prepare to be dismayed at how clunky some of it sounds.
Visualize; concentrate on action; listen to your dialogue. Every movie you watch is a chance to think about and to work on these skills. Notice how the director and cinematographer frame scenes: do the same thing when you write. Concentrate on which scenes advance plot or develop character, and which ones could be cut. And most of all, listen for good dialogue and use what you hear to improve your own writing.
Which movies should you watch to do all of this? Well, I just happen to have compiled a list of my favorite films of 2009. Just to be clear, these are not what I consider the “best” films (whatever that means); these are the movies that I must enjoyed watching. And, of course, there are a number of films that I still haven’t seen, which might someday make this list (most notably: A Single Man, Invictus, The Road, The Last Station, Un prophète, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).
And now, without further ado, my favorite films of 2009 (feel free to comment):
1) Avatar – One of the best theater experiences that I have ever had. A brilliantly creative world provides the setting for a rock-solid story. Yes, the dialogue is occasionally off (i.e. “It was time to take things to a whole new level.”). But the plot is very well-crafted. Cameron introduces an entire world without ever slowing down the flow of the story. The movie has some absolutely brilliant scenes—the first night in the forest of Pandora and the fall of the home tree in particular. For all that people say the story was predictable and trite, it still kept me guessing: I had no idea how the avatar / real Jake issue would be resolved. On that note, the idea of making the entire planet an interconnected neural network was quite brilliant.
2) Star Trek – So much fun, and the idea of creating an alternate timeline as a way of rebooting the franchise was quite clever.
3) Inglorious Basterds – A series of exquisitely crafted scenes that might not add up anything that makes sense. But who cares! The ride is exhilarating. This is the best Tarantino has been sense Pulp Fiction, and in some ways, better.
4) Food, Inc. – This movie made me stop ordering Domino’s pizza. Ok, it was only for three weeks, but still, that’s impressive!
5) Up – The montage at the beginning was perhaps the most powerful piece of filmmaking in 2009. The rest of the movie was pretty darn good, too.
6) Coraline – A perfectly magical tale and a beautiful film. Those button eyes are damned creepy.
7) Zombieland – There are a few small mistakes at the end, but for the most part this is a very fun movie based on a wonderful concept. Two men—a nerdy college student who runs from conflict and a brawny redneck who embraces it at every turn—are poorly suited for modern life… but turn out to be perfectly suited for Zombieland.
8) Orphan – A well-written, taut thriller. Not even occasionally clumsy directing can overcome the wonderful script. The film not only provides a wonderfully creepy antagonist, it also transcends the horror genre by creating well-drawn characters that make you care about them.
9) Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges is wonderful, and the songs sound just right.
10) Away We Go – If you believe that true love—real, true, perfect love—still exists in our modern world, then you’ll enjoy this movie. If you don’t, you probably won’t. I do.
11) Moon – Let’s hear it for models! Moon shows that you don’t need a giant special effects budget to make a great sci-fi movie.
12) An Education – A nice story about an old truth: the most important things in life are not learned in the classroom (although the classroom still turns out to be pretty important). The characters are beautifully drawn, complex, and every thing they do seems both believable and understandable. That’s surprisingly rare in movies these days.
13) Goodbye, Solo – Solo is by far my favorite film character of the year. The subject matter (suicide) is depressing, but Solo is so charismatic that he transforms sadness into poignancy.
14) The September Issue – I don’t think I’ve every read a copy of Vogue, but I found this film surprisingly entertaining. The characters are so good, it’s almost hard to believe they’re real.
15) District 9 – Creative, well-shot, and surprising: not something one sees a lot in sci-fi action films. I do feel like the film lost a bit in the second half, when it shifted from social satire to action, but still, it was loads of fun.
16) The Hurt Locker – I liked the Hurt Locker, but I have some bones to pick with it. It’s well directed, has good acting and showcases a very interesting world, but it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, and what story exists is painfully obvious (who didn’t know the doctor was going to die, or that Beckham would show up again at the end). It’s also a little offensive. The Hurt Locker is ambitious in attempting to answer a very interesting question: if war is so horrible, then why do people go back? Judging by the main character, the answer seems to be that soldiers are socially maladapted (the guy struggles to buy cereal) adrenaline junkies (breaking rules to put themselves in danger) who are only really good at war. Er, ok. Thanks for the insight.
17) Up in the Air – The film is a bit breezy, but like its lead George Clooney, also quite charming. Who knew a movie about firing people could be so much fun?
18) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – I don’t remember the book version having much of a plot. Amazingly enough, the movie not only has one, it works. Cloudy starts out with lots of wacky humor, but almost every zany joke has a plot payoff later on. All in all, a surprisingly good time.
19) Sin Nombre – A well-crafted story about people whose paths cross while they are trying to escape to a better life. It is set in a fascinating world that I knew little about: that of Mexican drug gangs.
20) Sherlock Holmes – I didn’t expect a lot from this film, but I thought it was both surprisingly good and surprisingly true to the books.
21) The Time Traveler’s Wife – I will readily admit that I probably enjoyed this movie far more than the average filmgoer. What can I say? I loved the book, and I thought the film did a nice job of bringing it to the screen.
22) The Hangover – An brilliant premise and a very funny movie. It loses its way a bit in the middle, but still, a very fun ride.
23) Adventureland – A good year for Jesse Eisenberg and films with “land” in the title. I found this movie equal parts sweet and funny, and absolutely endearing.
24) In the Loop – A fun, snarky movie, but in the end, I don’t feel like it added up to much. Maybe that was the point?
25) State of Play – The plot has two too many twists, but it’s worth watching to see Russell Crowe’s performance.
Next week: Draft 3 (more on getting the most out of editing)