Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hollywood knows a thing or two..... PART II


Last time I blogged I talked about what we could learn from Hollywood. Today I am basing my blog entry on the insight of Chris Vogler who has written best sellers about how to write for Hollywood which can equally be applied to our writing.

STAGING  Think about the roots of our art forms. The stage was vitally important as a means of telling stories before the general population could read and write, and we would do well to go back to those roots to think about how we communicate with readers. Staging is equally important in films as in novels. You have to stage things so the audience can ‘see’ them. Chris Vogler refers to Erin Brokovich where at one point in the script it says, ‘her face falls,’ and he remembered that moment in the film when the viewer is expecting Erin to protest at an injuustice but in fact that unvoiced gesture of her face literally falling made more of an impact. He points out that you have to make a picture in people’s heads.

I noticed this most recently in the film, ‘The Ides of March’ with Ryan Gosling who is a terrific actor who can make a minute’s silence say so many things. I shan’t put in any spoilers here for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. But his character, an idealistic young man moving in political circles changes considerably over the course of the story. He has to face up to some hard and sad realities and at the close there is a long close up where you see on his face a realisation, a hardening which in the hands of a skilful actor has a terrific impact. If, as writers, we choose our words well to describe our characters’ faces we also can make what our characters say have more impact.

BACKGROUND Think of backgrounds when you describe your characters, are they integrated and trying to blend in – or do they stand out apart from people, wearing garish colours, what can these clues tell the reader about your character. Thinking again of films and one from a very successful trilogy – this time the very strong Swedish filmmaking world rather than Hollywood, and consider Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as played by the extraordinary Noomi Rapace. Boy, does that girl stand out! Lisbeth has piercings in her face, her hair is jet black and cut in an unorthodox asymmetrical style. Her skinny limbs are tightly wrapped in black leather, her androgynous body could belong to a boy or a girl, heavy black eye makeup even black lipstick are designed to mark her out from the crowd. She hardly ever smiles, she always has a purposeful, direct look on her face and a determined walk. Lisbeth is literally no slouch. Looking back to my previous post on what Hollywood teaches us, it teaches us that one of the character traits which is extremely engaging is that a hero or heroine is powerful, they don’t have to be likeable but it is fascinating to see someone being good at their job. Lisbeth is a fantastic computer hacker. This even applies to contract killers such as Leon in Luc Besson’s film of the same name or Tom Cruise’s character in Collateral who is terrific at his job but you wouldn’t want to be the person he is hunting for! The reason we go on watching all these characters is that our sympathy is elicited for someone in that story. This is a key point in engaging readers. In Collateral, Tom Cruise hijacks a hard-working, moral taxi driver and forces him to take part in his crimes. The taxi driver has a dream, to open his own car business and we know that because he is going to call it Island Cars and he keeps a photo of a desert island behind the visor in his car to remind him of his dream. Instantly we are hooked. He’s a good guy and we don’t want to see him hurt, we want to see him triumph, we want him to go on that journey and he does. In the end, he triumphs, giving us a satisfying story. This brings me to the third thing I learned from Chris Vogler, and that is why fairy tales endure and how they can assist our writing.

FAIRY TALES Collateral is simply that, a fairy story. In the beginning the lone taxi driver picks up his princess – a beautiful female lawyer. He tells her his dream of owning his own company and you feel that as a lowly guy he could not possibly compete with all the princes she is likely to meet. In fact when he drops her off, even though she leaves him her card (or perhaps her glass slipper!) you despair of them ever getting together. The evil Lord in this tale is the contract killer, Tom Cruise who has all the charisma and fearlessness that the taxi driver never has until….. in fact Tom Cruise turns out to be also a fairy godmother. For, it is by putting the taxi driver in an impossible position that he is made to fight back, to stand up for himself and to defend the lady lawyer against her nemesis in the shape of…. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Tom Cruise’s contract killer. Fairy tales can teach us a lot, so, do go and write one or, read one because that, in many cases is what pocket novels are. Enjoy!


  1. Wonderful post, thank you. Lots to think about!

  2. Cara - this is great, so much info that I will need time to re-read and think it all through. I totally agree that descriptions of characters' reactions to events is very important. It is quite a skill too - I find sometimes I have too many 'gazes' and 'glances' and 'raised brows' so that is where editing comes in!
    Re powerful characters, I would say that I have to be able to empathise with the hero/heroine to be able to read to the end. They have to be sympathetic and basically good people for me to care.
    Fairytales - yes, back to happy endings in pocket novels!

  3. There is loads to think about isn't there Rosemary? But I think as long as maybe 20% of what we read about the craft of writing comes out subconsciously as we write then we're getting there! It's true Carol that one does constantly find oneself reverting to the gazing and glancing, particularly when writing romance as so much is to do with longing and feelings. I now read actively and note when an author has managed to say something in a different way which I admire in the hope that I can gear my brain up to emulate it. I can't remember which author it was who talked about 'getting a character in' in a line or two when introducing someone new and prided themselves on brief, to the point descriptions. Difficult but lovely when you achieve it!

  4. Thank you Cara. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. Makes me realise I need to slow down sometimes and really take stock of what I'm writing.
    I'm just basking in a wonderful crit from my sub-editor with an American publisher, for 'Ties That Bind' ... my best ever and I feel quite emotional about her kind words. We all need it don't we?
    Love Chrissie

  5. I totally agree, Cara. You have to like someone in the story. I will stop reading a book, or turn off the television, if I don't like any of the characters. That is why Nora Roberts is so popular. She has a lot of critics, but I bet she cries all the way to the bank. We have to give our readers what they want - a fairy story with lovely, likeable characters.

  6. Your post has really got me thinking about staging. PS Do sign your posts at the end. I wasn't sure who this was posting.

  7. Definitely one to read and read again, Cara. Great post (sorry it's taken me so long to comment). I liked the idea of Tom Cruise as a fairy godmother ;-) But seriously, that's an interesting way of looking at it. Every story we tell is a fairy story of sorts, usually a taken on Cinderella, and it's good to see how it can be interpreted in other ways.

  8. i like cars infect i like car racing i want to say that these type of cars are the best and the best cars around the world.these are rarely known cars in some countries like pakistan an india and other under developing countries.i like it really i like it very much.i want to spend my whole life to this field because this is fantastic and super cool job i like it. Buick Enclave Power Steering Rack