Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti
I didn’t anticipate it also meant school. Was I entertained? Yes. Relaxed? Oh, yes.
But after a weekend of watching one movie after another in my cozy no-boys-allowed* reading nook, I walked away overflowing with impressions and ideas for what makes a story–a movie or a novel or even a memoir or narrative nonfiction–work.
It was a watch and learn from movies experience for a writer and an agent.
* To clarify, my husband would have been allowed, but none of the movies were action-adventure or survivor, so he opted out and choose a sports marathon.
Few things will disappoint a reader or a movie buff more quickly than an element that doesn’t ring true. We can watch and learn from movies.
Movie #1. The ex-husband of the dead woman (outline drawn in chalk on the driveway) gave his alibi verbally to the police on the scene. The man lifted the yellow crime scene tape and walked into what had once been his house. The place crawled with law enforcement investigators dusting for fingerprints. But the man–a prime suspect–wandered through the rooms.
When the housekeeper saw him fingering a delicate necklace he’d once given to his wife when they were married, the housekeeper said, “Go ahead and take it. I’m sure she would have wanted you to have it.”
How many believability issues could the screenwriter break in one fell swoop?
- Crime scene tape is there for a reason, to prevent anyone except investigating officers from entering. It’s to prevent evidence from being erased, stolen, or tampered with. The ex-husband would not have been allowed access to the house.
- What was the housekeeper doing on the premises?
- Why didn’t the detectives verify the ex-husband’s alibi?
- Even more interesting is that the investigative team was still on the scene when the ex-husband arrived. He’d had to drive his truck from a ranch in Montana to the house in Los Angeles after hearing the news. And the detectives were still staring at the chalk outline in the driveway? Others were still lifting fingerprints inside?
- The victim–his ex-wife–was about to remarry. But the housekeeper was sure she would have wanted the ex-husband to have the necklace? And that it wasn’t interfering with a murder investigation for him to remove something from the crime scene?
Three of the movie marathon choices were British movies with brilliant British actors and charming English settings. They all moved at a snail’s pace–developing the characters, their relationships, and the plot agonizingly slowly. However, I tolerated the molasses pacing because each of them were molasses stories. The whole point was character development over the course of time, the simmering of tempers, the slow unfolding of the drama, the slow resolution of conflicts. Other details were spot-on–down to the unvaried wardrobe of the financially struggling, the unvaried meals, the decor and language hints about the era in which the dramas took place. In some ways, the nature of the movies’ internal wars dictated the speed (or lack of it) with which the plot moved.
And all was forgiven regarding pacing because…BRITISH! Our American reading and viewing audiences are accustomed to and expect the story to stride, not stroll.
Each of the movies I appreciated took full advantage of the element of surprise. And in each case, the surprise was subtle.
- A single line of dialogue.
- The title of a book in a girl’s hand as an evicted bookshop owner rode the ferry farther out to sea.
- A word in a newspaper obituary that shifted the entire experience of the movie for both the main character and the viewer.
- The last minute revelation that the narrator was in fact the girl with the book.
Cinematically, the aha! moments were captured iconically–a word, a look, a close-up, a book… Great writers accomplish the same as subtly. Rarely is the aha! a monologue or a lumbering scene. It’s a flash of sapphire on a heart-shaped necklace floating to the bottom of the sea. A single word–Freedom! A young girl’s red coat the only color in a black-and-white movie. A sharp intake of breath at the revelation that the vicar had not married.
WATCH AND LEARN FROM MOVIES
As agents, we gravitate toward voracious readers and savvy movie-goers who know they write better if the read more and create stronger scenes if they view them in well-done (and take cues from not so well-done) movies. The advice of the day is, “Watch and learn from movies.”
What scene from a book or movie has informed the way you write? Improved the way you write? Showed you the importance of believability, pacing, and subtlety?