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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Movie Music

musical-backgroundw-3817618_1280For me, a movie’s music can elevate a good film to greatness. Or take a good movie down to mediocre level. I would love for audio books to be scored like movies, and I know a few authors who compile playlists to accompany their books. Here are two movies that have scores which make a huge difference to the quality of the movie.

Island at the Top of the World

This Disney adventure movie captured my imagination as a teenager. I don’t know if the movie was one of their top productions because there are no big name stars and the some of the special effects are clunky even for the ’70’s. Maurice Jarre composed the gorgeous score. This composer won Best Score Oscars for Lawrence of Arabia. Dr. Zhivago, and A Passage to India.

He wrote one theme to highlight the hunt for a legendary land where whales to go die. It’s slow and mysterious. He uses the same tune but with different orchestration and tempo to accompany the appearances of the Vikings. (And if you want to know why there are Vikings and whales in the same movie, click on this link.)

Ten Little Indians(1966)

Several adaptations of this Agatha Christie play have been filmed under various titles. Ten people are invited to a secluded location, where a recorded voices tells them they have gotten away with crimes until day. Now justice will be served, and the characters die off, one by one.

This 1966 version is okay. The director seems to have added scenes, like a long fist fight, because he thought audiences needed action. The performances from several wonderful British character actors are a lot of fun.

But the score is completely inappropriate. The jazz score has not a note of mystery or suspense in it. In some scenes, the brass sounds likes they are playing for a strip tease. For more on this movie, read the article from Turner Classic movies.

What are some of your favorite movie music? What are some you can’t stand?

Writing Tip — When Frustration Leads to Inspiration

manw-390339_1280Some movies are great, some movies are terrible, and some are fixer-uppers. It’s the fixer-uppers that inspire me the most. These are movies with some good bones — good direction, good acting, or a good script. But I find something could be better, and I like the movie well enough that I’m frustrated it doesn’t succeed. That’s when frustration leads to inspiration.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is a fixer-upper for me. My husband and I watched this in the theater while we were dating. It was much better than The Phantom Menace. Watching tiny Yoda face-off against the towering Christopher Lee, one of my favorite villains, in a light saber duel was worth the price of admission. But I sense a missed opportunity, and so my imagination took off.

Because Clones was the second movie in a trilogy, I though it should mirror The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie in the first set of Star Wars films. Senator Palpatine could instruct Anakin in the dark side of the Force, doing the flip side of what Yoda taught Luke.

Another movie I thoroughly enjoyed was Leave No Trace (2018). This wonderful movie, about a traumatized U.S. veteran and his teenage daughter living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, succeeded on so many levels: acting, directing, casting, and more. What let me down were the final, few scenes. I thought the father’s action didn’t ring true with how his character acted during the rest of the movie. Because I like it so well, I analyzed why I felt those scenes didn’t work and what the screenwriters could have done to achieve the same ending in a way that made more sense for the characters.

Exercises like this give my imagination a work out. It helps it stay sharp when I tackle my own writing. I keep in mind the lessons that I’ve learned from watching fixer-upper movies, such as when I write a scene, and the words or actions of a character sound as wrong as an out-of-tune piano. I know I’m not writing about him or her in a consistent way and must go back and fix the scene.

Sometimes a movie frustrates so much, I want to take its scenes and work them into one of my stories, just to prove to myself that I can be written differently.

What movies have you found frustrating? How would you fix them?

Writing Tip — Casting Against Type

acting1-4013244_1280Last week, I mentioned director Alfred Hitchcock’s rule of maximizing a setting. He was also brilliant with his casting. He had to be. In a thriller, there’s little time for backstory or deep character development. I believe Hitchcock knew that if he cast certain kinds of actors who already carried a certain persona with them that would help flesh out their characters without a word of dialogue. If he needed a relatable, easy-going all-American male, he cast James Stewart. If he wanted a debonair leading man, he cast Cary Grant. But Hitchcock also knew the value of casting against type.

Strangers on a Train

In this movie from 1951, two strangers meet on a train. One is a well-known tennis player, Guy Haines . The other is a rich man’s grown son, Bruno Anthony. Haines’s troubled marriage is well publicized, and Anthony suggests they swap murders — he’ll do in Haines’s wife if Haines will kill his father. Haines’s gets away from the weirdo but humoring him and saying he agrees with the idea. Anthony takes him seriously and kills his wife. Now he expects Haines to uphold his end of the deal.

What made Bruno Anthony one of classic movie’s great villains was that he was played by an actor known for his cute, boy-next-door roles. To cast such an actor as a spoiled brat psycho was unusual at the time, but actor Robert Walker was up to the task. His Bruno glides into a room and charms everyone he meets. But when someone thwarts his plans, he’s like a child having a temper tantrum. Only this child has no problem committing murder.

Pyscho

Hitchcock pulled the same trick in Pyscho, casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Up until that role, the actor had specialized in sensitive types, sometimes battling against stronger characters or his own emotions or neuroses. Norman Bates can be seen as an extreme example of these roles. Anthony Perkins was cast so well that many people in Hollywood couldn’t see him in any part but a psycho after that.

Know Your Genre

One way to create characters that are cast against type is to have a thorough knowledge of the genre in which you write. In YA novels, the bratty rich kid and the decent poor kid are types I find over and over again. Often, the poor kid has won a scholarship to a private school and must deal with mistreatment at the hands of the rich kids until she is accepted or fights back or is changed by some dramatic events. Why not have the poor kid as the villain? One of the rich students could be the main character and comes under the sway of the new, poor kid, who uses others to get ahead.

What character types are you tired of? How would you cast them against type?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What Are Your Guilty-Pleasure Movies?

cinemaw-4213751_1280As I prepared the heading for this post, my youngest read it and ask if it meant you felt like it was a movie shouldn’t have watched. I explained that a person felt guilty for liking some movies because they aren’t considered “good”, or they are so strange or off-beat that not many people like them. As a classic movie fan, most of my movie-viewing might be considered guilty-pleasure. But in an effort to give others the courage to admit that they like movies critics and/or audiences have rejected, I am listing a few of my guilty-pleasure movies.

Abbott & Costello Movies 

On Sunday mornings, when I was growing up, a TV station out of Pittsburgh would run the movies from the 1940’s and 1950’s starring the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. If for some reason I didn’t go to church, I could watch one of their movies. The team cranked out a lot of film, and some of it is unwatchable, even for a dedicated fan. But some are still sidesplittingly funny. My favorites are Hold That Ghost, The Time of Their Livesand Abbott and Costello Meet Frankensteinin which Bud and Lou don’t meet the scientist but the monster,

Many agree that Meet Frankenstein is Bud and Lou’s funniest movie. It’s as if Universal Pictures took their usual horror script and told all the other actors to play it like a straight movie. But Bud and Lou react and make comments that the audience has been thinking, sending up the conventions of the genre. For example, when Lou figures out Dracula is a genuine threat, he wants to clear out because, as a fat guy, he figures he’s got more blood and will attract the vampire’s attention.

The Incredibles and Incredibles 2

Is it okay for an adult to like kids’ movies? I recently watched The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 with my youngest, and we both thoroughly enjoyed them. That’s part of the reason I like them, because I got to share it with my kid. But I find the super-parents’ dilemma with their kids hilarious.

So what are your guilty-pleasure movies?

 

Writing Tip — Maximize Your Setting

batesw-1190460_1280If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home (see photo) so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to  work a location to maximum effect. I recently saw the movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

One of the reasons I love The Bourne Identity is that the director made such effective use of driving through Europe in winter. It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in movies, and he conveyed the desperate road trip so well that I want to drive across Europe to see the sights.

So wherever you choose to place your stories, be sure to research it well enough to maximize the setting. Some idosyncracy about a particular location can inspire a character, a plot point, or simply elevate your setting from good to great.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie? Or have you written about a unique setting?

 

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