Sunday, 22 September 2013

Learning story structure from film.

“Standing room only! How cool is that?”

Thus began Julie Cohen’s popular workshop on story structure, using Pixar movies to demonstrate her points.

I LOVE Pixar films! They are funny, fast, emotional and beautifully executed artistically, with characters you can’t help but fall in love with.

No, I didn’t pick it just because it was an excuse to watch clips from some of my favourites - Cars, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Up! These films had been picked by Julie because they’re aimed at children and as such, have been stripped down to the essentials of story-telling and are easy to study. Like the many others who attended, I was interested to see how using them would improve my writing. 

What I learned is :

1. Pixar films open fast. Just think of the opening sequence in Cars, when Lightning McQueen is literally hurtling round the race track. Wall-E seems much slower by comparison, but both manage to get across vital information about the main character, their conflict and the world they are living in, into – usually - the first 4-6 minutes of film. Backstory is always included as part of the story itself, but it's kept short and it has to be essential.

I know from experience that my stories don’t start as fast as perhaps some folk would like them to, but if I get the vital information right, hopefully it’ll still give me the hook I need to keep the reader’s interest.

2. They use the three act structure – or for those who like it simple: beginning, middle and end. So we are introduced to Lightning’s selfishness and desire to win fame and fortune in Act 1. In Act 2 we see him change when he finds friendship (Mater), love (Sally), and fickle fame (Doc Hudson). The end of Act 2 is marked by the lowest point in McQueen’s journey (the ‘oh shit!’ moment), when the media find him again and his new way of life falls apart. Act 3 opens with the climax – will Lightning win the race at any cost? No - he redeems himself by demonstrating he’s a very different car to the one we saw at the start. 

This really hit home – I can’t have a fabulous plotline on its own. I need the character to be ‘a very different car/man/girl/robot/dragon to the one we saw at the start’. (I wrote about character qualities earlier this week if you want to know more...). 

3. Using a repeated image helps to chart the emotional journey of the character through the story. For example, helium balloons appear several times in Up – particularly in the fabulous prologue (more of that later!). Similarly, hand-holding is a recurrent theme in Wall-E.

I tried to think whether I’d ever used this in my stories - and came to the conclusion I hadn’t. It will be interesting to consciously ‘plant’ something I can use subtly through a storyline and link it to the MC’s development.

4. Subplots are always related to the main plot, which should always move forwards and offer insights into the development of the main character. In Finding Nemo, the plot is about finding courage, when Marlin (the dad) needs to find enough to enable him to rescue his son, and Nemo finds enough to escape the fishtank he's found himself in.

Again – this points to flaws in my ability to character build, as I’ve never consciously considered the character arc. I’ve had sub-plots, yes, but just viewed them as twists and turns, rather than use them to ‘grow’ characters.

5. The climax has to be BIG! There’s always lots at stake to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat, wondering how on earth the MC is going to get through it.

This, I understand and do achieve reasonably well. However, it’s worth noting that in Pixar films, there is always a satisfactory resolution. No leaving the viewer on a cliff-hanger, feeling cheated that the story hasn’t really finished, so buy part 2, which picks up where part 1 left off - NOW! Personally, I don’t enjoy that in a book, so my stories always have a resolution. Normally happy because hey, I like to make people smile. I do like to leave a door open, in case I have an idea for a sequel…but the main story gets tied up neatly.

6. Prologues are sometimes unnecessary – but they can be wonderful when done right. Just look at Up, where the first ten minutes or so are total backstory about when Carl met Ellie and how their dreams of adventure coloured their life together. Had it been written, that part would probably have been cut. Visually, it’s a stunningly beautiful prologue and never ceases to make me - or Julie Cohen, or the vast majority of the delegates in the session - need to find the tissues. (If you’ve never watched Up, you’re missing a treat. I guarantee you’ll never say ‘SQUIRREL!’ again without laughing…)

I’ve had funny experiences with my prologue. It’s been like the hokey-cokey: in, out, in, out. Even shaken about. At the moment it’s in, loved and hated in equal measure by those who’ve read it. I think the rule of thumb has to be whether it is vital to your story for the reader. Not vital for you, to explain how this wonderful world you’ve created works, or to explain exactly how your MC got the nasty limp: vital for the reader. Julie’s advice is to write it last, once you know your story.

(Slightly off-topic - I bought one of Julie's books at York: Girl from Mars. I loved it 'cos it's a great story, but there were proverbial lightbulbs popping all the way through it because as I read, I could see and understand exactly what she'd been covering in her workshops about characterisation and story structure.) 

So, back on topic - even though my kids are now a little old for Pixar, I’ve got an excuse to watch all the old favourites again. When I've done that…

...I’m going to write a story as though it were going to be the next big thing to come out of the animator’s studio.

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