Tuesday, June 30

Stay In the NOW!



One of the things I’m learning about as I continue writing novels is structure— how to build a story so that characters, events, reactions, and outcomes all come together to create a cohesive plot. I tell a great story, I truly do, but I get bogged down in the details of my characters’ lives—especially their pasts. My editor Lani recommends that I watch movies and read—absorb narrative, pay attention to how the stories transition and flow. So, I’ve been doing my homework this summer.

I reread a fabulous book by Keith Cronin called Me, Again. Read it! Keith does a great job telling the story of a man who has a stroke at age 28 and then is in a coma for six years. The story begins as he awakens from the coma and follows the character’s journey back to himself…except that he’s no longer the man he used to be. Fascinating stuff and Keith brings the past and present together so skillfully that the reader never gets bogged down in the details.

Movies are a fabulous way to learn about structure. The storyteller has roughly two hours to get the job done, so anything extraneous has to go. Some movies do this flawlessly, others—not so much. I’d never watched a movie with the intent of learning structure before, but it’s a fascinating experience. Sister PJ and Husband will tell you it’s a pain in the butt to watch movies with me now, because I kept stopping the DVD to turn to them and say, “See? See how they did that transition?” or “There, perfect! Look how they gave us all that information in the first five minutes of the film.” At Christmas last year, after about an hour into our annual viewing of Love Actually, PJ finally said, “Shut up and watch the damn movie!”

Have you ever seen the film The Family Stone? It’s a very well-done, quirky comedy-drama about a family at Christmas (yeah, I'm thinking a lot about Christmas in June--go figure). Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson are wonderful as the parents, whose adult kids all come home for the holidays, bringing their own particular joys and sorrows with them. I won’t detail the plot, but structure really hit me between the eyes in the first few moments of the movie. Within the first two scenes, we learn all we need to know about the backgrounds of the characters—who they are, what they’re dealing with, and how it’s going to affect the family holiday. Writer/Director Thomas Bezucha did a masterful job of filling us in without dragging us down into backstory.

When the movie was done, we watched the “Special Features,” including the “Deleted Scenes.” I love hearing the director talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff with the movie, but the deleted scenes are particularly significant when you’re watching a film for structure. Seeing what the director cut helped me understand why Lani always cuts out nearly all the flashback and backstory from my Women of Willow Bay books. “Stay in the NOW!” were her instructions. When I saw what Bezucha edited out of The Family Stone, I totally got it. It was great stuff and so are my backstory scenes, but they’re not necessary. The deleted scenes would’ve bogged down the movie, just as my flashbacks bog down my stories.

So, now my job is to write my new story in the here and now by allowing my characters to live out their present dilemma. How they got there can be dribbled in as it’s needed, but it’s imperative to stay in the NOW.

10 comments:

  1. This is a great article, Nan. I have problems with information dumps. I keep being told "Your readers aren't as dumb as you think. They can figure some of this out on their own." I have trouble cutting details. I'll read that book by Cronin. And I never thought about watching how a film is edited. That would be fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Claudia, hi! I hadn't thought of watching the film extras either until I saw the ones for The Family Stone and realized how he did the cuts and why. It's a great learning experience. And by all means, grab the Cronin novel--not only is it great storytelling but it's a wonderful lesson is getting backstory in without info dump.

      Delete
  2. So true, Nan. This writing stuff isn't for sissies. ;) I almost always set up my stories and have to cut most of the first two chapters. Have to remind myself to stay in the present moment. I loved Cronin's book. And truth, I bought The Family Stone years ago and it's still in it's wrapper. Must remedy that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Roben! So glad you stopped by! Yes, by all means, watch the film and then watch the extras. It's great stuff!! !

      Delete
  3. I know you're right...I KNOW it...I'm just so lazy... Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, pshaw! You're not lazy a bit! You are a great writer! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and really next time you watch a really well-done film, just kind of notice how the story flowed and connected, how easily you knew exactly what each character's story was, and how that moved things along. It's kinda fun, really. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love backstory. I may love it a *bit* too much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My problem precisely, Kristi! It's hard not to say too much...I'm soooo bad about it! It really does help to see how others do it. ;-)

      Delete
  6. I love the idea of watching movies and analyzing them for backstory. Although, The Family Stone is not one of my favorite movies. I hate that the sisters basically switch partners..LOL

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, Margie, it is a fabulous way to see how other writers get the backstory in without dumping info right up front. You know, I should've been bugged by the sisters switching, but it was so well done that I didn't get bothered. ;-)

      Delete