Movies as guides to narrative structure


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.



Just came back (yesterday afternoon) from spending a long weekend back home with family and friends in Dallas. Ahhhh, I’d forgotten how much I absolutely despise Metroplex traffic — and I didn’t even drive the entire time I was there. We’ve only been away for five months, but I think the traffic has actually doubled in just that short amount of time. And the attendant stress levels — for both driver and passengers — are higher than ever.

No writing done, but I also didn’t get much sleep either. B. and I spent a whirlwind 3-1/2 days running around with the families (his and mine), so it was a highly caffeinated weekend. We also went to a karaoke box on Saturday night with J., E., L., M. (friend of J. and E.’s) and T., a friend of L. Total b-l-a-s-t. It’s located in this rather seedy area off I-35 in Dallas, with only a dozen small-ish rooms to rent and somewhat indifferent management, but there was much rejoicing all around. It helped that B. and I hadn’t been there in so long so that we hadn’t grown tired of our “usual” songs (yet), but we’re thinking that the next time we go, we may try just going through the entire catalog and singing all the songs in order, even those we don’t care for. Hey, L. and I sang Air Supply’s “Lost in Love,” which isn’t exactly one of my faves, but I guess when you’re with a happy group, it’s a late night and there’s a disco ball a-spinnin’ above your head, any song sounds appealing.

One thing I’d quickly forgotten about Dallas is how well-dressed everyone is, and how brutal it can be on women who aren’t especially keen on dressing for the grocery store. It’s gotten even more so now that the fashion world has sat up and taken notice of all the money that just gushes through town: NorthPark Mall (my favorite) is brimming with high-end stores you wouldn’t have expected to land in Dallas just a few years ago. Ya got Barney’s, Oscar de la Renta, Bottega Veneta, Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier, Giorgio Armani, along with the standards: Tiffany’s, Dooney & Bourke, Anthropologie, BOSS Hugo Boss, Kate Spade

I’ve gotten so used to living out here in the deserts of western Colorado — with its standard uniform of fleece vest and yoga pants — that I felt a bit lost and not a little underdressed even just going to a local hibachi restaurant with the ‘rents and the sibs on Friday night.

Not that I eschew the fashion world. I love reading Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and, yup, Lucky Magazine, and not just for the articles! The Devil Wears Prada is one of my current favorite films, and that gorgeous blue Marc Jacobs purse featured in that scene with the main character’s friends at the restaurant….ahhhh, that was exquisite.

On the other hand, the whole poor-although-not-quite-starving-writer lifestyle doesn’t really accommodate generous shopping sprees at Target, let alone Neiman Marcus, so I’m limiting my purchases to thrift shop digs (no joke — you can find the coolest, most unique clothing at thrift shops if you know where to look) and garage sale finds (ditto).

I know that writers aren’t supposed to be interested in such ephemeral, “shallow” desires, that we’re supposed to keep our eyes and minds focused on the deep and true, but haven’t most writers been “guilty” (if you can call it that) of a little vanity? When I write, I want to be at my most comfortable, and that usually means donning a hoodie jacket and matching pants. Clothes themselves interest me as art, but I’m hypersensitive about comfort (comes from growing up a tomboy, I suppose), so in my daily life I generally dress very casually. On the other hand, I’m obsessed with handbags and am unfortunately only interested in the upscale designer ones.

[Side note: I notice that fashionista writers and blog posters liberally use the word obsessed to describe their passion for a particular item, whether it’s a specific one like the aforementioned MJ purse, or a general category like purses or belts or shoes. Maybe I’m being picky, but it irritates the bejeezus out of the writer in me. Use of the word assumes that the writer/speaker is consumed by thoughts of the object in question, but because most of these women (and they’re mostly women, natch) obviously have lives and jobs and families and friends and appear to be otherwise mentally healthy individuals, I assume that they are not actually obsessed with these things but are instead keen to purchase them. Two totally different concepts, no? Grrr. BUT…on to our regularly scheduled program…]


I’ve got my eyes peeled for the perfect handbag/tote: one that’s stylish, preferably not in black (’cause all my other purses are in that color, and I’ve got spring fever), roomy enough for at least a couple of small books, my wallet, calculator, a snack, a small bottle of water, cell phone, pens, notebook, and day planner, but not bulky. (I sound like one of those profiles in InStyle magazine where the celebrity lists the contents of her purse, no?) I expect to spend the next 2-3 years searching for it, which will give me plenty of time to save up the dough.

Ohhhh… almost forgot! B. and I spent a lot of time this weekend (when we actually were together, which wasn’t often) laying the groundwork for a joint writing project that will probably take up most of this year to plan and execute. We’re looking at writing out a full screenplay, then producing a short film of it to [hopefully] show at a festival next year. Ya, I know, yet another project on my otherwise overflowing plate, but I love the idea of working once again with B., and he’s such a creative genius (the story was his idea), not to mention a great partner all around. So stay tuned for more news on that as we progress!