This semester, I took a class called Intro to Film. It was basically just a filler credit to get my Fine Arts requirement, but I'm happy to say that it has become more than that. It seems that I fell into a wildly beneficial learning experience without even realizing it. How's that for good luck? I'm only three weeks in, but so far we've discussed a variety of subjects, each one either directly, or at least feasibly, relating to novel writing. The format of the class runs like this: we have an hour lecture, a two hour movie, and an hour discussion. I've already gone into this in a previous post, so I'll be brief. In the hour lecture, the professor teaches us something about narrative structure, themes and motifs, character development, set dressing, lighting, or music, etc. Some of it is amazingly helpful in my own writing, and even the other stuff, such as set dressing and lighting can still be taken for what its worth.
Let me explain. There is a term in the film business, mise en scene, which basically means the style of what you see. The Director and Production Designer of a movie try their best to keep this consistent, and it's what gives the film its "feel". It can include furniture, set design, color palette, lighting, makeup, costuming etc. Think of films like Moulin Rouge, 300, or any Tim Burton production. These have a very strong mise en scene. The same goes for an author writing a book. While reading a book isn't a strictly visual medium, the visuals are still important, if you know what I mean. The author acts as the Production Designer, creating a world through description, not images. A good, or shall we say, successful writer, can plant a literary mise en scene right in the reader's mind. By keeping descriptions of objects, clothing, and buildings consistent, a writer can maintain a distinct style that persists in the reader's mind throughout the story. Not only that, but the way in which a writer forms their sentences or uses pronouns and adverbs can give the actual words a recognizable style. Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, and the Codex Alera books all accomplished this in my opinion.
So I guess what I'm saying is that I've come to appreciate movies as a learning experience for my own writing. This leads me to the subject of this post. In class last week, we discussed narrative structure. I've done a lot of my own self-learning about this, listening to podcasts, attending panels, etc., but I've always been a little hazy on how to properly structure my stories. My professor told us about an old Hollywood staple, taken from a book called Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. It's intended to be a help for screenwriters, but it applies just as well to novelists. In it, the author outlines a series of "beats" that every successful story should touch on. It's not a formula per se, simply an outline of what will keep an audience/reader interested in the story. Since you can find it on the web in a million places or in any film class, I'll outline it really quick here:
Opening Image (where we see the character, and get a basic idea of who they are):
Theme Stated (the viewer/reader gets to see what the movie/story will eventually tell them):
Setup (Characters living life):
Catalyst (the big "thing" that happens):
Debate (where we see the characters trying to sort out their options, figure out what to do):
Break Into Act Two (this is where they take their first step toward and attempt to resolve the problem):
"B" Story (a different, but associated character's story, many times this is a romance):
Fun and Games (think training montages, newly dating couple having shenanigans, etc.):
Midpoint (disaster that commits character to their path, halfway through the story):
Bad Guys Close In (this is where stuff begins to escalate, become more serious):
All Is Lost (low point, everything bottoms out and the worst has happened):
Dark Night of the Soul (kinda self-explanatory, characters question everything, superhero hangs up his cape in despair, oh crap):
Break Into Act Three (Where things begin to turn around, characters begin to fight back in earnest):
Finale (the big finish, sword fight, dog fight, Luke cuts off Vader's hand, and the Emperor is thrown down the ventilation shaft):
Final Image (new life, we see the aftermath, people are reunited, usually a happy ending, but not always):
I may have misconstrued some of those points, and if I did, let me know. But the general idea is there. A successful screenplay hits all of these beats at some point, and so does a novel (in my opinion). Today I went through, and applied my own book to these beats. I was surprised to find that most everything was represented, though the order was a little out of whack. I'm not saying this will work for every novelist, or even every genre. As for me, it's been a big help. Take a look at it, try to assign your favorite movie or book to these beats. I guarantee you'll be able to. Then maybe try your own book. Story and character are the most important thing in any novel, so take some time and give them some love.