November 9, 2018

Improve Your Story by Watching Movies

By Kathryn Ramsperger

We've become a more visual culture. We authors may dream of movie rights yet using film technique is important for any story teller, because visual, auditory and sensory details hook the reader. Here are 4 ways watching a few movies can make your story sing:

1. Watch a movie with a character or plot comparable to your work-in-progress (WIP). Take notes on action, lighting and set. What do you see or hear that conveys how the main character feels? What details help you predict where the plot is heading? Notice color, shadow, and sound. Would you be affected the same way if the sensory details were different?

A great example: Watch the first episode of "The Miniaturist" on PBS. Notice its stunning use of visual effects, especially its use of color, light and shadow. Notice how protagonist Nella reacts as she holds each miniature and the ways her touch conveys emotion.

2. Now take what you learned and add sensory detail to your WIP. That's one thing the written word does best. We novelists have more room for such detail; just remember not to take up too much page space. I tend to concentrate on touch and smell. A movie can show its protagonist caressing her velvet bodice or clutching her mare's mane but can't explain how she feels or thinks about it. A movie can show broth steaming on a stove top. A novelist can describe how it smells.

Compare how Jessie Burton's novel that preceded the film treats the same scene in which Nella meets her sister-in-law:

"The voice sails sure and swift from the darkness of the hall. Nella's skin contracts... She watches as a figure glides from the shadows, a hand outstretched--in protest or in greeting, it is hard to tell. It is a woman, straight and slim and dressed in deepest black, the cap on her head starched and pressed to white perfection." (p. 9)

What details did Burton add that are missing in the movie?

3. Next, elicit empathy. Studies show novels work better than movies because they evoke empathy. "Films let you observe everything. Books? Books let you feel everything, know everything and LIVE everything," says Meg, The Book Addicted Girl in her blog for The Guardian. Movies have actors and images. We have words to connect a character's personality and intention with our readers, place them in scene, let them "read" a character's mind.

A friend and playwright corralled me into attending an acting-for-writers class. The class proved invaluable. When I pretended to be my protagonist, I felt different. I walked differently, stood differently, and had different mannerisms. When I pretended to be a classmate's protagonist, my movements changed again.

The class increased my ability to think and feel like different characters.  "Don't judge a man til you've walked a mile in his moccasins," Sharon Creech writes in the young adult classic Walk Two Moons. I was already a sensitive, empathetic person, but my class taught me how to convey other's emotions, not just understand them. Which leads to my last suggestion....

4.  It's easy to find an online screenwriting class or community playhouse gig. My high school and college acting taught me how people as unlike me as Nella or Desdemona think, feel, and react. It helped me write sections of my novel from a male Muslim point of view.

Use your entire life to tell a story. I'm always taking notes of what people say, how they hold their bodies. I'm an eavesdropper, listening for the perfect inflection or turn of phrase when I visit a different town or country. I especially note how people behave differently than I do to similar news.  I journal a list, then use it in my writing.

One final note: Re-read and revise with your audience in mind, remembering to make your written scene every bit as clear to them (not just you) as a movie scene. Ensure your details fully ground the reader in your story. To do this well, define the space a scene inhabits.

Good luck on those movie options, but until then, these tips will ensure your novel and its characters remain with your readers.
Kathryn Ramsperger’s literary voice is rooted in the Southern tradition of storytelling, informed by her South Carolina lineage. Her debut multicultural novel The Shores Of Our Souls (TPP, 2017) received a Foreword Indies award and an America's Best Book award. A sequel is in the works, as is a work of creative nonfiction. She began her career writing for The Roanoke Times and The Gazette newspapers and later managed publications for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland. She has contributed articles to National Geographic and Kiplinger magazines as well as many online publications. She's lived in Europe and Africa and traveled throughout the Middle East. Her most recent adventure was in Iceland, and her vision is to pursue humanitarian work on every continent. Writing from a global perspective, her themes are universal yet intensely personal and authentic. A graduate of Hollins University (Roanoke, Va.), Kathryn also holds a post-graduate degree from George Washington University.Winner of the Hollins University Fiction Award, Kathryn is also a finalist in novel, novel-in-progress, short story, and poetry categories in the Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in journals for several decades.  Author website:  Blog: A fuller list to my work or reviews: Connect on Social Media: Kathy on Your Tango  Kathy on Facebook  Kathy's Author FB Page  Ground One Coaching on Facebook  Kathy on Twitter  Kathy on LinkedIn Kathy on Pinterest

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