Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Story is A Story is A Story

Watch movies. Watch a lot of movies. Watch mostly good movies. Movies are good study. There's a lot to be learned from watching films and paying close attention. You, as a writer, can benefit from watching movies. That's true, obviously, if you want to write for film. But if you want to write books (Hell, if you want to write anything) then you can benefit from watching movies.

Movies are stories. In terms of length and content, movies are similar to novellas. They've got to be very tight and they've got to tell a story in a limited space. The dialogue, of course, has to be good. Dialogue is important. But there's a lot in movies that needs to be set in the picture. Movies - good movies - are all about the showing because they do not have the space to tell.

Movies get across so much in such comparatively little time that you can benefit from studying how a movie tells its story. Because they're so short, you can also watch a lot of them to get a broad range of ideas.

And while you're at it, watch television, too. Now is a pretty bloody good time to be watching the old idiot box. The age of sitcoms, monsters of the week and reality TV is coming to a close and, right now, TV serials are big fish. There's some very good story telling happening in TV right now and it's worth taking a look. Every episode is like its own self-contained chapter in a book and every season builds to a massive climax with a season finale that blows you away and leaves you wanting more. A good TV serial might be the closest thing to a novel that isn't a novel.

The story telling in a TV serial, where every episode connects and there is one plot, one arc that extends over a whole season and the whole series, is worth studying. You can learn a lot about how to keep your audience keen. There's a lot more room to breathe and tell more complex plots in a TV serial, too. You should definitely be watching TV.

And you should read comics. A lot of comics are really stupid, but there's something to be gained from seeing how people go wrong. But there's a whole mess of really good comics out there, too. Go get some and read. Like movies and TV, a comic has to tell its story visually and use imagery to carry a lot of the subtlety prose allows. People are highly visual creatures and by thinking visually when you write, it helps you create better imagery in your own writing. And what better way to learn than to study those who succeeded before you?

Comics are different to film and TV, though, because they also use text. All that speech in text and all those sound effects in big, bold lettering are done by people called Letterers and it's not a little job. Lettering is an art to be respected and bad lettering can kill not just a comic but the story that comic wants to tell. This is almost unique, except that the shape of prose also affects how a story is told in a novel.

Comics come in all shapes and sizes. So even if you're all about sophisticated character drama novels, reading comics and studying how the story is told can benefit you greatly.

And, most of all, more important than any of the above, if you want to kick it old school and (like most writers) focus on the classic prose novel, then you should be reading novels. Read all kinds of novels. Read books of all shapes and sizes. Read books in your favourite genre and, from time to time, read a book outside the normal. Read new books and old books and serious books and silly books.

Honestly, it's not so important what you read, but how you read. This goes for every type of story telling medium I've described above. The key is to be active in how you engage with the story. Don't just read and don't just watch, but study. Look at what works and ask why it works, ask yourself how you would write it differently, consider why the author chose a certain word or why a particular chapter took place when and where it does so.

Right now, I am revoking your lisence to be a passive member of the audience. You want to write, you need to start paying attention to how other writers are practicing their craft. Read, watch, study.

A story is a story is a story, so from now on, when you're watching or reading a story, study it. Work to improve your own story telling.

"Hey Carl, what about video games? Do they count? They're stories."

Um... Well... Uh... No. Not really. Well, sort of. Sometimes. Look, that's not an easy question so I'll come back to that next time.

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