Auntie Deborah Holds Forth on Writing Topics

Q: Can I learn to write novels from movies? If so, which movies?

A: Rather than specific movies, watch those director’s commentaries in which the process of story construction is discussed. For example, in the extended DVD editions of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson and the writers talk about the decisions they made in adapting the books for film; these segments are filled with insights into how stories work (on film) that also apply to prose narrative.

My second suggestion is to read some of the excellent books on screenplay writing, paying particular attention to the 3-act structure and the way tension is created, built, and resolved. With only dialog and action as tools, the script writer has to use both to excellent advantage, something we novelists could learn much from.


Q: Do you write stories longhand or on the computer, and why?

A: I do most of my drafting on computer (used to be typewriter, back in the day) because I want to write quickly. I don’t care if it’s rough, I just want to get the basic elements of the story down. To promote the free flow of ideas, I need to get my internal critic offline. Longhand comes in when I’m stuck or revising and then the slower pace helps me to focus on nuance and detail. Then I want and need all my critical faculties; I’m usually either trouble-shooting, adding layers of resonance and depth, or filling in crucial gaps.

In the past, I wrote extensively in notebooks by hand when I wasn’t at home — waiting for appointments, while my kids were in gym class, at the airport, etc.; this was in the days before laptops/netbooks/tablets. Now it’s just as easy to stick my Chromebook in a bag and go; it’s light enough to carry easily. The increased productivity from keyboard vs paper makes it worthwhile.

Very occasionally I’ll switch to dictation (Google Voice, which usually drives me a bit nuts because it doesn’t learn), especially for dialog, but I find the differences difficult. It’s an added if less desirable tool to help me through those stuck places.


Q: I’m too upset to write. Help!

A: Running away to a world inside our minds has long been a strategy for writers. In fact, daydreaming as children was how many of us got started as storytellers. So one way to look at your question is to just let yourself escape and pay attention to what gives you comfort, hope, and courage. That’s where the passion in your story will be.

Another aspect, one I have struggled with, is how to focus enough to write when in the midst of a crisis. Again, the strategy is to do what you can, even if it’s not the project at hand. Have faith that as you allow the story to lead you through survival and recovery, you will regain the ability to concentrate. You may find, however, that coping with those life problems changes what you want to write. If you have a contract or commitment to produce something that no longer speaks to you, you will have to behave like an adult professional and renegotiate. But if your book is “on spec,” it’s entirely possible that the best story for you to work on is one that emerges from your struggles, not something initially conceived before those problems descended upon you.


Q: What are the essential elements of a fantasy novel?

A: A fantasy universe requires the same essential elements in any good story: vivid world-building, characters that are complex and fascinating, a sympathetic protagonist with a worthy goal who faces both internal and external obstacles, and so forth. The difference between mainstream (or science fiction) is that fantasy as a genre allows you to bend the laws of physics as we know them. Whether that means a well-thought-out system of magic, the existence of elves or unicorns or any other mythical being, or any other element, it must be an integral part not only of the world but of the plot. It doesn’t help to have a dragon as your fantastical element if it never puts in an appearance, or a vampire that exists only in stories.

Sometimes stories get marketed as fantasy when they are in reality perfectly non-magical stories set in an alternate-medieval world. Fantasy does not necessarily mean medieval! Some of the best fantasy literature takes place in modern settings (or future, or Renaissance…). And let’s not forget the wealth of cultures that are not Western European! There’s a whole world of folklore and history, not to mention fascinating characters and traditions, out there.

(My epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, was based on the conflict between the Romans and Scythians, with added cultures derived from the nomadic horse peoples of Central Asia, the Phoenicians, and the ancient kingdom of Judea. Each of these has its own relationship to the land/sea, and its own magic derived from that bond.)


Q: How do you know where to end a chapter?

A: My chapter divisions arise naturally from the story itself. Just as the entire novel has an inciting event rising tension, reversals, climax, etc., so does each scene, although of course the resolution of tension is partial if at all, so that it builds over the course of the entire book. A chapter may contain one or more scenes, but has the same overall “arc” of drama. Some may lend themselves naturally to a twist or cliff-hanger at the end, but this is not a good thing to do consistently (you will aggravate your reader!) The end of the chapter, like the end of the scene, can be a transition, “a lick and a promise” of more adventures to come.

When writing a rough draft, I set up one chapter per file, with a numbering system that indicates also which draft it is. I don’t combine them into one “novel-length” file until I’m ready to sent it out (either to a beta reader or my editor). (Example: 1NOVEL.03}

Occasionally, when revising I will divide chapters as I add and develop material, and even less occasionally I will combine them if I find myself ruthlessly pruning “flab.” I don’t try to make them the same length within a book or from one project to the next. They are the length they need to be.



Auntie Deborah Holds Forth on Writing Topics — 5 Comments

  1. When I have to answer those latter two Qs, I advise just writing the thing. Maybe it’s not fantasy. You don’t need chaptering now, you can add that later — and not all books have chapters. How can you know until you write it? Once you finish, it’ll be clear.

  2. I’ve had several ghostwriting clients and collaborators who were not readers—all their ideas about story and characterization came from movies. There were several problems inherent in this.

    One, for example, was that their concept of POV was entirely external. They wrote as if they were only able to watch their characters from the outside, so they had no idea how to convey the emotional landscape inside a character or use it to provide dramatic tension or emotional resonance. Their idea about generating excitement was almost entirely visual—big fight scenes, chase scenes, epic battles. ‘Splodey things’ to use a Whedonism.

    These are things that are difficult to do well on the page or to make as exciting as they are on a screen. And for the simple reason that the eye can take in multiple actions happening at once (think the Battle of Pelennor Fields in Jackson’s Return of the King), but words pretty much come one at a time and simultaneity has to be faked … well, okay—conveyed cleverly.

    But there are two movies I regularly point to as examples of how something that is effective on screen can also be effective on the page. One is Return of the King where at the end of the aforementioned battle, Eowin is facing down the King of Angmar, who has just stated that he cannot be killed by any man. Eowin rips off her helmet, announces, “I am no man,” and skewers the Ringwraith. This is a scene that has pretty much equal effectiveness in both word and film. So, I’d tell a movie-centric would-be writer to look for scenes like that in their favorite movies—scenes that rely on an economy of both word and action to do or say something significant, then analyze why they are so effective and try to put that into words.

    Another example is the first Avengers movie. Everyone I have talked to about that perfect storm of a film has told me that their favorite scene or the best scene in the film is not the blowing up of New York in the long, epic battle, but the dialogue-heavy scenes that take place aboard the Shield flagship. Again, why these scenes are so effective is a good subject for study.

    And this leads me to the one book on writing and craft that I always recommend to beginning writers. Ironically, given how much of a challenge I find mentoring folks whose “literature” is on the silver screen, it’s Dona Cooper’s “Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV” which uses the marvelous analogue of designing roller coasters to teach plotting, pacing and construction. Of all the materials I’ve stumbled across, Cooper’s book has been the most helpful when it comes to plot-craft and mechanics.

  3. Reading screenplay books can teach something about plotting mechanics, but imo, they don’t help with mastering narrative voice, how POV works, style vs voice, etc.

    • You’re absolutely right. The question is how to get the aspiring writer from here to there. If they’re so strongly movie-centric (a) that might be a better medium for the; (b) it might be more effective to try easing them into learning actual prose technique through something more movie-like than advising them to skip movie stuff entirely. That was my thought.