Montage: For Books!

Montages in movies are a lot of fun.  They spend a tiny amount of time showing us the most interesting parts of training, scientific discovery, and any other thing that needs to happen but would take a lot of time to live through.  Rocky goes from inept to competent in a matter of minutes.  Hiccup discovers the quirks of the man-killing beasts he’s feared all his life over the course of weeks, possibly months— condensed into a handful of quick scenes.  Iron Man builds a suit in his basement through trial and error, without destroying the pacing of an otherwise quick and fun movie.

Can books do this?

It’s a question I’ve had for a while.  Movies are easy to consume because they take little time compared to books, but books and prose are what I want to write.  The techniques that work in movies— the character arcs, the plot twists, the magic systems— usually work in books as well.  But those are story elements, for the most part.  The presentation of those elements, such as slow pans, jump cuts, close-ups, and the like?  Those are restricted to movies.  They have parallels in the book world, of course, but the book world has its own tricks movies can’t match.

So how can we take the idea of a montage and apply it to prose? Continue reading “Montage: For Books!”



I am a fan of the TV show Castle.  I can spoil almost every episode for you right now.

I’m not going to, because I’m a nice person, but I thought I’d put that out there.  I can also spoil Elementary, Fringe, the three NCIS generations, JAG (although I’ve only watched a couple episodes), and all six of the Star Wars movies.

To be fair, though, I know Star Wars backwards and forwards, and the spoilers are already plastered over everyone’s eyeballs, so there’s not much surprising there.  The point remains that I can spoil a crime show, almost any crime show, almost any episode, with a little thought and the first eight minutes of the episode.

I’m not going to tell you how— this knowledge cost me enjoyment of all recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations— but I can tell you why.  Why can a mild-mannered student of writing quickly tell the who did it of any whodunit?

Because most fiction, especially serialized on-a-deadline fiction like a TV show, has rules. Continue reading “Rules”

Color in the Lines

I love colors.

Ha! I hear you say.  You, Liam, love colors?  You have often said your favorite color is grey (spelled just so).  Your blog has only the barest bit of red.  The same is true of your socks!

To which I blink, wonder how you got a view of my socks, and begin to explain.  I love colors because of the symbolism they allow.  In general, that means moods, but occasionally colors symbolize abstract concepts or objects.  Studies say colors can strengthen different moods, such as blue with calm or yellow with happiness.  (Personally, I link blue with asphyxiation and yellow with disgust, but that’s me.)  Depending on that sort of thing, a day care might have blue walls with bright, happy murals.  Hospitals are traditionally considered white, which brings to mind sterilization and all manner of pointy things.

Film thinks a great deal about color.  In movies and TV shows, the hint of color in a shot can grab the attention.  The lack of color (a black and white film) gives a very different feel to a story.  Use darkness to create the feeling of mystery or evil, use bright colors to indicate reality— or sometimes, a world outside of reality.  Costumes, sets, lighting, all have colors in mind.

I feel like books don’t use that enough. Continue reading “Color in the Lines”


This is a regularly scheduled reminder.  Today, we’re multitasking, and would thus like to remind you of several things at once.

  1. There are many types of beauty.
  2. Anything in real life can be interpreted vaguely enough to apply to writing.

Thank you.

I was watching The Lego Movie recently, for about the fifth or sixth time, and something struck me about halfway through.  It’s a scene I absolutely adore, the midpoint and one of the biggest emotional impacts in the movie.  The bad guys have just attacked and the main character’s safe haven and most of his friends are destroyed or captured.  I love this scene every time I see it.  I consider it one of the most beautiful moments of all the movies I’ve watched.

But as I watched it this time, I realized it wasn’t all that beautiful.  Yes, there were a couple exquisite shots that really tugged at the emotions, but it wasn’t the cinematography or animation that made it beautiful.  It wasn’t, essentially, the way the writers told the story at that point.  It was the story they were telling. Continue reading “Beauty”

Making the Mundane Show Character

They say that every word should count.

Unfortunately, “they” say a lot of things— and not all of their words count.  In fact, in most conversations, people repeat themselves, say meaningless half-sentences and fragments before stopping, or just grunt expressively.  Most of these verbal effects are impossible to convey in written dialogue, so we take them out and replace them with concise statements, full sentences, and blocking to show character.  Every word must count.

Even so… in dialogue, even stylized dialogue that you find in fiction, you see plenty of meaningless phrases.  “How are you?”  “I’m fine.”  Unless the statement directly opposes the obvious (such as a broken leg), it doesn’t do anything but fill space and make each word mean less.

Is that a big problem?  No, of course not.  You can use “I’m fine” as much as you want and no one is going to take off points.  But you know amazing writing by the way every word counts, even “I’m fine”.

Take an example, the line that inspired this post.  In the movie Serenity (sequel to all of Firefly), the characters are involved in a high-tech car chase— they’re on a little open-topped hovercraft and their pursuers are on a spaceship, and they’re zipping around the geography chasing each other.  Along on the journey is Simon Tam’s little sister, River, who is often crazy and occasionally psychic.  Simon looks out for her, but on this run there was no room for him to come.  So River is caught in a spaceship chase without her big brother.  Things are exciting, people are hurt, and metal objects go boom— all as expected, and the good guys barely come out on top, back at their spaceship.  Simon immediately rushes to River’s side and asks her if she’s all right.  River responds, “I swallowed a bug.” Continue reading “Making the Mundane Show Character”

Captain America and Corniness

Last month, I went to Europe.  Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar.  More specifically, a Corny bar.

Never have I seen such an apt description.  The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way.  The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate.  Corny?  Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.

Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny.  The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to.  This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.

This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality.  With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original?  My goal as a young writer was to find that thing.  But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself.  It’s difficult to be completely original.  In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness. Continue reading “Captain America and Corniness”

Bending Over Backward (TCWT)

The Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain this month tackles heavy topics all the time, but this month’s is particularly difficult.  They ask:

“What are your thoughts on book-to-movie adaptions? Would you one day want your book made into a movie, or probably not?”

It’s a hard topic.  Fans are rarely happy about how any adaptation turns out, but they still buy tickets to their favorite book’s adaptation without question.  It’s difficult to tell who to side with: the literary world, or Hollywood.  However– and don’t stone me– I believe that it’s a problem created by the literary world.

I see you picking up rocks, but let me explain.  The novel has been around for centuries.  The motion picture has been around for one.  Its predecessor, the stageplay, was around long before that, but even then very few novels were put into plays.  Occasionally a narrated piece could be performed as a play, but as for novels… it wasn’t done.  Perhaps a scene here or there, but it was generally understood that a book could be enjoyed over a long period of time, with as many breaks in the middle as anyone could want.  A play, on the other hand, could only be enjoyed as long as the audience’s seats were comfortable– once someone needed a bathroom break, they lost interest in the play.  Books were for long-term enjoyment.  Plays were for a single evening.

Once the screenplay came along, however, the idea of mass entertainment was revolutionized.  Books already reached enormous audiences, and motion pictures were beginning to do the same– how about take popular books and make them motion pictures?  Great idea, except motion pictures were bound by the same restrictions stageplays were.  Although a hefty book deserved good representation, all the cinematic excellence in the world couldn’t combat the stupidity of the man who drank half the Atlantic before coming to the theater.  Thus, truncation in the name of time constraints was begun. Continue reading “Bending Over Backward (TCWT)”

Creating Capable Characters

Have you ever noticed how amazing some main characters can seem at first glance?  From the moment you see them, they strike you as likable, capable, and well worth the attention.  The most obvious example of this, of course, is in heists, where the main characters seem perfect and the story still works.  For instance, Ocean’s Eleven.  Danny Ocean walks onscreen wearing his tux, cracking jokes, slipping parole, and planning the heist of the century.  Of course, he also just got out of jail, probably for trying to pull a different heist of the century.

Dom Cobb, from Inception, also walks onscreen rather capably.  He’s in the middle of an operation, smoothly infiltrating minds without alerting them to his presence.  The operation goes wrong, but he handles it smoothly, ditching the project and disappearing.  Of course, he was doing that job for a big corporation who now wants his head since it went sour.

Every episode of NCIS or NCIS: LA begins with the main characters engaging in light banter as they arrive at work.  They mess around for a little, tell a few jokes, create some fun promises that don’t really have to be fulfilled but would be nice.  They don’t seem to have a care in the world, and by the clips during their theme song, we know they’re very capable.  Of course, someone just died a few minutes ago, which they will undoubtedly have to investigate.

What do these things have in common?  It might be obvious to you: the caveat. Continue reading “Creating Capable Characters”

The Marvel Mistake

A pattern exists in Marvel productions, whether movie or comic book, but I didn’t pick up on it, strangely, until they forgot to use it.  This is what I call the Marvel Mistake, and contrary to expectation, the mistake is not on Marvel’s part– it’s on their main character’s part.

How does it work?  Simply have the main character make a mistake in the beginning, then have that mistake become a turning point in the final battle.

This works best with hero stories where the hero is learning about his powers.  In Iron Man, Tony Stark has just built his suit and he’s testing the parameters.  He’s having fun flying around, and decides to see how high he can go.  He’s climbing, climbing, climbing, and then ice crusts on his suit and causes it to fail.  He starts to fall.

Now, I won’t spoil the end of that scene for you, because there’s an hour left in the film, but that tiny slip-up of going into cold climates without sufficient antifreeze technology was useful.  Later, when Iron Man was battling Iron Giant, Man takes the fight into the higher reaches of the atmosphere and asks, with the usual hero attitude, “What did you do about the ice problem?”  The bad guy plummets to his suit’s near death, and the whole thing goes downhill for him from there.

Is this a good technique to use?  Absolutely.  It simultaneously gives an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome as well as a tool for the antagonist’s defeat.  Not only that, but it adds what’s called a callback to the story– with this later rendition of an earlier problem, you remember the earlier scene and see how far the protagonist has come.  Furthermore, it gives the heartwarming idea that the bad guy is truly destined to lose– surely, if he couldn’t overcome a mistake like this the way the good guy had, he isn’t worthy to defeat the good guy.  This technique is basically an action movie character arc in a bottle. Continue reading “The Marvel Mistake”

Emotions in Structure

I’ve posted about emotions before.  They’re important to anything you write, whether essay, story, or Post-It note.  The emotions make it real for the reader, more than anything else in the narrative.  Emotions from scene to scene have to contrast, the emotions for different sentences have to feel real, everything has to work together.

What I didn’t truly realize until yesterday, when I was watching The Dark Knight Rises, was the importance of emotions in story structure.

What is a low point, after all?  It’s the low point– the place where every good character is in the worst place they could be.  They thought they planned this thing out, but now everything’s gone pear-shaped.  The love interest has a gun to her head, the main character is in the dungeon, and the side characters are off chasing shadows trying to save everyone.  With a tiny push, the antagonist can prevail.

Another question: is this the time for the main character to quote Dora?  “We can do it!”  Is it time for him to laugh confidently and say, “Ah, we’ll figure it out.”  Is it time for him to be confident at all? Continue reading “Emotions in Structure”