Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Notes from "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" with Paulette Bourgeois

Using screenwriting techniques to create children’s books

“But suppose, asks the student of the teacher, we follow all your structural rules for writing, what about that “something else” that brings the book alive? What is the formula for that? The formula for that is not included in the curriculum.” --Fannie Hurst

There is no formula for writing good children’s books, or any books for that matter but there are tricks, tips and techniques that one can draw from the world of screenwriting that make facing a black screen and a blinking cursor just a little more manageable.

Tell the story in one line.
Most movies can be summed up in one line and it’s often helpful to do this for a book you plan to write as well.

For example:
  • A young wizard must face his own death in order to save his world.

  • A girl swept by a tornado into a foreign world must save her friends before she can return home.

  • A businessman falls in love with a call girl he’s hired to be his date for the weekend.
*WRITING TIP: Write down your one-line summary and post it where you can see it as you write. If you get “bogged” down check to see if your story still adheres to your own synopsis. If not, ask yourself why. Perhaps you’ve taken a more exciting direction for your story. Change the one-liner to fit the muse. But, if you are going way off-track check to see if you are still heading in the direction you set for yourself.

A good movie, like a good story, explores the universal human condition.
Powerful stories appeal to the most primal human needs. They are about survival, hunger, sex and love, good and evil. In one screenwriting guide, Save the Cat, author Blake Snyder writes that Titanic is not a story about a ship that hit an iceberg with disastrous consequences; it is about the need to survive. Sleepless in Seattle is about the need to be loved. Bridge to Terabithia is about loss and redemption.

*WRITING TIP: Ask yourself, what is this story about? This is not a plot summary but a chance to discover which of the deepest human needs and wants will appear in your story.

A good movie, like a good story, usually follows a classic three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end.
This isn’t as formulaic as it sounds. There’s much room for imagination. Think of the structure as the building blocks of your writing. If you were building a house, whether it is a bungalow, a castle or a Tudor-style home the building blocks are always the same—a foundation, walls, roof and supports that hold everything together.

A writer who learns to pace a written story like a thriller, action or adventure movie with three acts, each with its own twists, turns, conflicts and resolutions, will have a page-turner. Even character-driven stories can follow the same pattern—only the action is smaller and the conflicts and resolutions may be more internal.

You might ask how movie structure differs from novel structure. Remember the graphs teachers used to show the structure of the novel? The line starts much like a road through the prairies that moves into the foothills, scales a coastal mountain and then drops precipitously into the ocean. Movie structure is more like driving through the prairies, riding a roller-coaster through the Rockies, scaling a mountain, falling off the ledge, being saved, crawling over the peak and finally, after a perilous descent, landing on a beach with a clear view of the horizon.

In a typical three-act structure, Act One is the set-up. In most movies, the first fifteen minutes are devoted to learning about the setting, the characters, the direction and the theme of the story. Around 23-28 minutes into the story there is a turning point. Something important happens that changes the story and the plot starts moving. It’s important for the writer to ask a central question – will the boy get the girl, will Dorothy ever get home, will the bad guys be caught?

Most children’s novels are about 120 pages long. Most movies run about 120 minutes long. I’ve noticed that many children’s books seem to follow the breakdown of acts, turning points, climax and resolution. Often, about a fifth of the way through a 120-page book (which is about 23 minutes into a movie) there is the first turning point.

Act Two is the development of your story. In the next 40-65 minutes of screen time there will be twists, turns, conflicts, resolutions, obstacles and action. This is where the bulk of the story is told. Again, this is the same in many great children’s books. In a movie, around 75 minutes into the film, there is a second turning point that changes the direction of the story, raises the central question again and raises the stakes for the characters. This is often the darkest part of a story –where there is a death, or near-death or a sense for the hero that everything is hopeless.

Act Three is usually past-faced and within five pages of the end, there is a climax to the tale. The big question has been answered, there is a sense of relief and the loose ends are being wrapped up.

The next time you watch a movie, check your watch the first time you sense that something really big is happening. It’s usually 22-25 minutes into a typical 120 minute film. In page-turning books for children such as Harry Potter, Tuck Everlasting and The Tiger Rising, the turning point—where everything really starts happening is about a fifth of the way into the tale.

*WRITING TIP: Divide a work board into three sections. Use index cards of different colours to represent the three acts of your story. Outline the set-up, development and resolution for your story in one-line jots on the cards. As you create your characters, determine the big question, decide upon the turning points, the conflicts, resolutions and obstacles write quick notes on index cards and post them in the appropriate Acts.

The Hero’s Journey,
In a good movie, as in a good story, there is a hero who is ripped from her ordinary world and thrust into a place with dangers and obstacles that must be overcome, often with the help of a mentor or wise-person, to discover some truth about herself or her world. The hero brings back this knowledge or treasure to the benefit of others. That’s it. A journey that is repeated over and over and over again in powerful, memorable movies and books.

The journey is explored in depth by Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s ideas into the highly recommended, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.

With apologies to both authors for over-simplifying something as complex as universal myth, it can be helpful for the novice writer to go through a check-list before, or during writing.
  • What kind of world does your hero live in and what is his life like there? This can be a fantasy world, a small town in Saskatchewan, an urban centre, an office, a classroom, anyplace, anywhere.

  • What happens to change this world? A flood? A divorce? A new girl in town. A letter?

  • What does your hero want? Does he want to save the world, fall in love, find the treasure, revenge his tormentor? What happens that compels the hero to leave his ordinary world and embark upon an adventure? Are the flood waters rising to dangerous levels? Is his enemy after his girl? Is the quarterback too sick to play the big game? Is there a physical or psychological threat?

  • What stops the hero from getting what he wants? Does the dam break? Is there a conspiracy? Does the rocket-ship fail to launch? Is there somebody bigger, stronger, and more competent who shows up? Does he sense that he lacks courage or compassion?

  • Who helps the hero along the way? A witch, a teacher, a coach, a vagrant? How do they help—with a talisman, with words of encouragement, with physical support?

  • What’s holding your hero back from getting what he wants? Are there physical, or emotional obstacles in his way?

  • How can your hero manage the crisis or overcome the obstacles? Does his mentor help? Perhaps he used the magic sword, or found the treasured object, or discovered a courage he didn’t know he had.

  • What really, really, really bad thing happens next ? Does it seem as if your hero might not make it? Does everything look bleak?

  • What does your hero do to get out of the mess?

  • Has your hero changed because of his journey? What new knowledge does he have to bring back to his “ordinary world”?

*WRITING TIP: Start a writing prompts folder filled with images of places, people and things. Clip stories from magazines and newspapers that take you outside of your imaginary world. Listen to strangers and keep notes about their conversations and speaking style. When you’re struggling for a turning point in your story, or wondering how your characters might act, or searching for an obstacle to overcome, this idea folder can jumpstart your creative process.

So many writers get discouraged about half-way through writing their books. In my case, it is usually at this point that I realize that the book I have in my head is not the book I’m actually writing. The book in my head has well-rounded characters, a strong story, a compelling theme, beautifully crafted prose and page-turning drama. The book I find on my screen is, instead, wooden, predictable and dull. How to get over the hump?

Linda Seger writes in her book, Making a Good Script Great, this is the time for some cinematic techniques. Try a reversal in the storyline—have the good guy do something bad, have the crusty old guy show a soft side. Throw in a new complication, or add a new barrier that stops the hero from getting what she needs. Add a new character to a scene of dialogue to up the conflict. Remember that in every scene, an action needs a reaction. Try not to be predictable and you will gain momentum not only in the story, but also in your desire to write that story.

*WRITING TIP: Don’t give up. Write one sentence at a time. Keep on writing until you are finished your first draft. The best writing happens in the rewrite.

Some last thoughts...

Whether you are writing a picture book or a novel for children there is always a hero’s journey and three acts. Even my 32-page picture book, Franklin in the Dark uses the most basic elements of the hero’s journey and has three acts. We meet our hero, Franklin in his ordinary world of home with Mom. He is called to adventure when he realizes that he cannot continue to live with an overwhelming fear—monsters inside his own shell. He journeys through the land seeking advice and guidance and meeting obstacles. Finally his mother, acting as a wise sage, gives him the knowledge he needs to change. In the climax of the story, Franklin faces his greatest fear—crawling into his shell, but with a new awareness that allows for a resolution to the conflict. When Franklin turns on his night-light, the story ends.

Was I thinking of the hero’s journey as I wrote? Absolutely not. Was I thinking that a fifth of the way into the story, there should be a turning point? Absolutely not . And yet even in this little picture book there is a hero, a journey and a three-act structure and indeed, almost exactly one fifth of the way into the tale, there is a turning point that forces the hero out into a different world. As storytellers you will find that most of what you want to write and to say will find this form naturally—our brains are hard-wired for story, but if you run into a problem with the momentum of your story, it is helpful to know that there might be a “fix” by knowing where your hero is in his journey and where you are in your story.

*WRITING TIP—I’ll say it again. Just write your story. Just keep writing it until you have a first draft. It’s easier to see the problems and to find the solutions when you are looking at the “whole picture”. And if you’re really stuck? Get some popcorn, put up your feet and watch the Wizard of Oz...the perfect hero’s journey in three amazing acts.

Grateful acknowledgements to the classroom teachings of Sara Graefe, Gail Anderson-Dargantz, and to Linda Seger and Christopher Vogler whose books are a constant reference and resource.

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