Search

JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

Category

Writing Tips

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?

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?

 

Writing Tips — Favorite Movies: Film Noir

grainw1-3026099_1280For over a year now, I’ve been faithfully tuning in each week to Noir Alley, a franchise on Turner Classic Movies where the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller introduces a movie from the classic period this genre, 1940-1960. Since almost all the movies deal with crime, it’s small wonder I like film noir. It’s sort of the tough, blue-collar cousin of classic murder mysteries. If you aren’t familiar with this kind of movie, here’s a crash course in it’s basic elements that I discussed last August.

Along with a distinct visual style which often included  low-key lighting and deep shadows, classic film noir contained at least one or more of the following elements:

  • A weak, male character
  • A femme fatale — she manipulates the weak male
  • A private eye — who may be either weak or strong
  • A determined, good woman — usually, she is trying to rescue the weak male.  (These weak, male characters are a a lot of trouble.)
  • Corrupt authorities — including the police
  • An innocent man or woman convicted of a crime — see weak, male character
  • Characters doomed by fate or their pasts
  • Greed and opportunities to make huge scores
  •  Caper film — from Film Noir by Alain Silver, The audience sees a crime from the criminals POV. And during or after the execution of the crime, Something Goes Wrong.
  • Couple on the Run — from Film Noir. The couple can be innocent, fleeing from a trumped up charge, or guilty and trying to escape the police.

The setting for most of these is the gritty, corrupt city. A few movies from this time period can be labeled country noir, movies with noir themes set in a rural location — On Dangerous Ground, They Drive By Nightand one of my favorites InfernoMovies with film noir themes were made after 1960, and still are, but the two decades during and after WWII was when the genre was being created and when it was most popular.

The main reason I love film noir is that it deals with epic emotions, like trust, betrayal, greed, self-sacrifice, and more, in a realistic setting. Producers and directors today seem to think you can only explore these themes in fantasy stories, like with superheroes. Our civilized, technology-crazed society doesn’t seem to leave plausible reasons for a main character to follow an epic course of events.

For example, a story set in America today could have the best friend of the main character (MC) murdered. MC helps the police by answering their questions. As the police conduct their investigation, MC turns to friends, family, and professional counselor to deal with the loss. Some writers could make that story compelling. I’m not one of them.

I would take the film noir route. Because the local authorities are corrupt, my MC would begin her own investigation. When she got too close to the truth, she would have to rely on her own wits because she can’t trust the authorities. Or if MC is a criminal, he battles on his own because the police would do him no good. This isolation of the MC helps generate dramatic story arcs.

That’s why my YA novel and the short story being published in November are both country noir. I love showing readers that dramas with high emotions and higher stakes can take place in contemporary settings. And the rural locations of my stories help isolate my good guys.

Do you like film noir? Or what other crime or mystery movies do you like?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who Are Your Favorite Movie Villains?

canvasw-3001164_1280A hero looks even better matched with a worthy villain. Would Sherlock Holmes have near the enduring popularity if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t invented Professor Moriarity to combat him? A couple of my favorites are:

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Revenge of the SithThe Chancellor is a wonderful villain before he becomes the evil Emperor. I wish the writers had given him more scenes because actor Ian McDiarmid does such a marvelous job of conveying the character’s insidious campaign of seducing Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side. His scene with Anakin in a theater lets you figure out just how evil the Chancellor is.

Harry Lime from The Third ManIn this film noir, American Holly Martins comes to Vienna right after WWII to meet his friend Harry Lime only to learn that his friend has died in a car accident. Martins suspects murder and conducts his own investigation. The character of Harry Lime is discussed throughout the investigation, and the audience gets to know him from the various descriptions from different characters. It all builds to a intriguing picture of a charming rogue, who, at some point, abandoned the charm, and is now a murderous rogue. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but Harry Lime is one of the all time great villains of movie history.

Who are your favorite movie villains?

 

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑