One of my favorite “teaching moments” this past weekend at the D/FW Writers’ Conference was Bob Mayer‘s frequent use of actual film scenes — which he would incorporate into his PowerPoint presentations — to illustrate the power of a solid narrative structure. I listed these in my notes as some of the films he mentioned and the specific scenes he cites:
- Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scene
- The Verdict, most notably: the scenes where he photographs the woman in the hospital; he meets the judge at the latter’s home and begs to settle; the final scene in his office
- L.A. Confidential
- Broken Arrow, with John Travolta and Christian Slater
- Walk the Line, specifically the scene where Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his bandmates are auditioning for someone and are told that the man doesn’t think Cash “feels” the song. Mayer mentioned this scene several times throughout his presentations as a wonderful example of how artists must be passionate about their work, or their readers will immediately see through the artifice and lack of story
He mentioned many others, but these are the ones that stand out the most. I totally loved this unique perspective, since I’m such a huge film buff. He emphasized the importance of watching quality films closely, including all those special features on the DVD’s, to see how scenes are structured and titled; how they build upon each other to create tension, a narrative arc; how characters are introduced, including the antagonist; how dialogue is written to distinguish one character from another. Mayer recommended that writers watch film commentaries, too, to hear how filmmakers decide on details to include in each scene, whether it’s the burning cigarette in the ash tray in the background or the color of a woman’s barrette. These little details are what add punch and interest to a story, the defining characteristics of the people and places and plots that make up a really good book.
I got to thinking about Battlestar Galactica, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and how each episode built upon all the previous ones, how the narrative structure stayed so tight, even through multiple storylines and characters and over four long years. What made BSG such compelling TV were the characters and dialogue, really, more than the storyline itself. [Spoiler alert!] Who knew that the Cylons would end up being allies to the humans? Who knew that the last shot of the entire series would include the “angels” of a Cylon and human? When did we, the audience, begin caring for the Cylons, sometimes more than we did about the humans? That’s some good stuff there, and I bet if I go back and watch it all over again, studying each episode’s structure and dialogue, I’ll learn even more not only about the story — because we always catch details upon repeat viewings and repeat readings that weren’t obvious during the first go-round, and which almost always give us clues as to the author’s or screenwriter’s overall vision — but about the characters themselves.
So now I’m raring up our Netflix account again, getting it ready for our move this weekend to our new apartment. We’ve had it suspended the last two months, but delivery should start up again this Saturday. We’ve a backlog of several hundred films, if you can believe that, but now I have an even more attractive reason to park myself in front of the TV and watch movies: it’s research for my novel.
By the way, if you’re interested in knowing more about how a successful screenwriter thinks and works, John August (Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, The Nines, among others) has a great blog in which he discusses the art and science of his craft and answers questions from readers.
2 thoughts on “Movies as guides to narrative structure”
Good food for thought in this post, Marjorie! I find that I watch movies like a writer — analyzing the whys and wherefores and how they contribute to the overall film: character development and story arcs. I do the same thing reading novels — it’s hard for me to read like a reader, but when I read good novels, I learn a lot as a writer. 🙂
I actually have a friend who wants to be a writer — and has written a novel (unpublished) and a screenplay and is hard at work on another book — but who dislikes reading. I try to tell her that she can never be a really good writer until and unless she reads, but she doesn’t think that’s necessarily the case. Weird, I know.
I love reading and I love films, but it wasn’t until I heard Bob Mayer speak that I began to really appreciate the structure of films. My new assignment this summer is to analyze some of my fave films more closely!
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