Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Unconventional Writing Resources: Feature Films (or: WALL*E Rules!)

Writers are instructed that in order to learn about writing, we must read, read, and read some more. We should read books on writing, and more importantly, we should read scads of fiction. Fiction in the genre we write, fiction in other genres, good fiction, mediocre fiction, excellent fiction and awful fiction. This is excellent advice that definitely should be followed.

However, I’ve found that in addition to the written word, I draw quite a bit of inspiration and craft instruction from films. I’ll admit it: I love movies. I am a movie junkie. We don’t have television here (can’t afford cable, and we’re so far out in the sticks that there is no reception), but we have VCR and DVD players and a large, ever-growing collection of movies. We have great movies, okay movies, fantastic movies, and movies that are so bad, they’re good. We have movies we’ve watched so many times, we could stage reenactments in our living room (in fact, we’ll often speak to each other in movie quotes; my husband, my son and I. We are an odd lot).

For several months now, we’ve all been looking forward to the newest Pixar release: WALL*E (click on the title to view the listing at IMDB, in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about this movie). Being a tad obsessive about movies, we trouped to the theater on opening night to see this film, for which the short and mostly uninformative previews had so enchanted us.

We’re going to see WALL*E again this week. And possibly next week. Yes, it was that good. I cried at least six times . . .

Overly emotional reactions aside, WALL*E is an amazing movie. Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (what?? It’s been out for four whole days! Get to the theater; you’re missing it!), here’s what I learned from this film as a writer:

Character is King: WALL*E, the little robot who’s been alone on the planet for 700 years, is an amazing, endearing character. He was the only character seen in the early previews, and they were more than enough to make us decide we HAD to see this movie. Lesson: Create a compelling character, and plug him/her in your marketing, and people will want to read your book. (Sub-lesson: Make sure your book is as compelling as your character, so people will want to read your next book.)

Use Your Setting Wisely: There are two distinct settings used in WALL*E. Both are fully realized, and both contribute layers of atmosphere and meaning to the story without audience awareness that the settings are being used in this way. It was only after the movie, during our usual "philosophical discussion" about what we’d just seen, that my husband and I came to this realization. Lesson: Allow your settings to become integral parts of your story without letting readers know you’re using them.

The Power of Dialogue (or Lack Thereof): The trailers for WALL*E contained a noticeable lightness of dialogue. In fact, the main character could only speak his own name--but the plot and the characterization were still crystal-clear. We wondered whether Pixar would be able to keep up this dialogue-less performance through most of the movie (not all of it, of course; some dialogue is necessary) . . . and they did. This movie contained less dialogue than Soldier, but it worked amazingly well. The expressions, actions and tones of the robots conveyed everything far better than words alone. Lesson: Expand your characterization tool kit to include more than just dialogue, and your characters will be all the richer for it.

Emotions Make the World Go ‘Round: WALL*E made me cry. Have I mentioned? But it was in a wonderful way. The story, and the way it was brought to life through the movie, was just so amazing. I became emotionally involved in this movie at a level I haven’t experienced in a long time. I laughed often, gasped, wept, covered my mouth with a hand, literally leaned forward in my seat ... in the theater! And I didn’t care if anyone was watching! Lesson: While it’s important to have a plot that moves and advances, if you grab your audience by the emotions, they will love you for it.

There you have it: what WALL*E taught me about writing. What movies have influenced your craft recently (or not so recently)?


Marta Stephens said...

I really liked this post, SW. I saw the previews and have it on my list to see (see, I don't live under a rock after all).

Being a part of a generation that grew up with television and movies, I can't imagine not being influenced by film as much as by the written word. On the other hand, writing has heightened my awareness of both. I find myself watching a movie and checking for subplots and the other things we need to include in our writing.

One of my favorite is Bogart and when I write my Sam Harper, I can't help but hear Bogie's voice.

Kim Smith said...

yay! i have wanted to see this movie but have been saving it for this weekend (traditional thing with the fam)and now you gave me every great reason to do so!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Oh, dear. I guess I do live under a rock. LOL.

The movie sounds phenomenal! Thank you!

You know, I too am a movie nut, S.W. After all, a story is a story, and who cares if you absorb it through movies via optical input or movies via words written on a page? I love both.

At one point in my career I listed the stories that moved me the most and those themes within them that captured my heart. Funny, but most of them ended up coming straight out of movies. One of these days I'll post that silly old list. Now that I think of it, I believe it was just before I wrote the second version of Double Forte. Ha. Seems like just yesterday, but it was seven years ago.