Movie Making

Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!

And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!

On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?

And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.

And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!

And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.

I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.

The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.

Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.

In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.

Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.

As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.

The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.

I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.

So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.

One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.

Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.

One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.

I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?

Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.

Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.

We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.

We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.

In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.

It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.

∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Yes! Cookbooks are great resources. Especially international and/or really old ones. There’s a set out there called Time Life Foods of the World (Out of print, but sometimes found in book sales) that has both recipes and beautiful color photos and articles about various countries. And for Victorian stuff, I love Mrs Beeton’s Household management. It’s got everything a Victorian lady needs to know to run her home, plus recipes.

    And the BBC has a great series of living history shows: Victorian Farm, Victorian Pharmacy, Edwardian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm…

  2. Hey! I’ve written a story that’s kind of a dark Cinderella retelling. Basically, instead of the girls going to a ball, they have to fight each other to the death, and whoever wins gets the prince. But when I try to market the story, people all say it’s just a fluffier version of the Hunger Games. How do I break that perception?

    • I suspect the comparison’s unavoidable to some extent, but you can emphasize what makes your story unique, and maybe it’ll help if it appeals to HG fans. Is it meant to be light of “fluffy” in tone?

      • Well, the main character comes off as kind of prissy and spoiled at first, so she’s not really like Katniss. Throughout the story, she becomes stronger and smarter. There are also no boys in the competition, which cuts out the whole Katniss-and-Peeta romance plot. In general, it’s a lot lighter than the HG. Does that kind of make sense? (Sorry, it’s still early; I should be sleeping!)

        • I definitely think that making the main character very different from Katniss will differentiate your story from Hunger Games. Also, the HG was very much about world building, and politics, and futuristic life. Maybe if you focus of the psychological aspects of killing someone, how the MC feels about her step-sisters, you could make your story unique.

          • Thanks! My character starts out very sheltered, so the killing definitely shakes her up. I will definitely take your advice!

    • I personally think your story should be a definite hit just based off your description, Enchanted. I normally have will have nothing to do with stories based on princesses, but I can tell yours would be a lot more interesting than others. I like the spin you’re making; it’s very unique.

      • Thank you! It’s still in very early stages so far but I like where it’s going. And I’m the same way – not into classic princess stories, but a version that flips it on its head does it for me.

  3. I like the idea of combining a dislike of arguments [etc] with a love of maths! In maths, the answer is right or wrong – black and white. The rules are step-by-step and give exact, consistent results. Whereas interactions with people involve so many shades between right and wrong – two people can both have a valid point, yet argue because their opinions are mutually exclusive. I look forward to seeing what you do with this character! 🙂

  4. I have a question on the subject of descriptions. I like to write in first person, but I often find when I focus on the character’s thoughts and feelings I forget to include description, and sensory details, or I have a very sloppy transition from thoughts to description. On the flip side, if I “make a movie in the reader’s mind” [as stated beautifully in the post above] I often forget to include thoughts. How can I get better at including sensory details, and emotions? On an unrelated note: does anyone have any opinions about breaking the 4th wall, so to speak? Thank you so much, in advance.

    • I’m not a first person writer, partly for this reason, but one way to combine sensory details and emotions is to have the details convey the emotion. For instance, if I’m writing about a funeral, the overcast sky will look gloomy, mourning doves will cry, wheels will creak, feet trudge. If I’m writing about a happier scene, even if it happened in the same setting, the sky might be beautiful swirls of gray, birds will sing, wheels dance, feet march.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        We can be mechanical about encouraging ourselves to remember. We can type at the end of a day’s work: REMEMBER THE MOVIE! REMEMBER THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS! (I tend to do these things in all caps to distinguish them from the rest of my story.) Then the reminder will be there when we get to work again. We can also set a timer on our phone to go off every twenty minutes to remind us. If we do this kind of thing, remembering will become automatic after a while.

        I’m adding your fourth wall question to my list.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          Having said I’ve added it, I’m hoping you can expand the question. I think of breaking the fourth wall as reminding the reader that she’s just reading, that this is fiction, through devices like addressing the reader directly. Is this what you mean? Why has the question come up? Are you working on something that’s brought it up?

          • I was watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the other day, and the way the MC directly spoke to the screen confused me a little, at first. I was wondering how other watcher/readers feel about this technique. I’m not currently working on something, but I was wondering how others felt about that method of writing [or film making].

  5. I need help! I’m writing a sequel to my NaNo novel that I wrote last year. I’m doing YWP again, so I’m able to set my goal, but I’ve set my goal really high. (for me, anyway). I need to write about 15,000 words in five days (counting today) and I don’t usually write that much. Time isn’t really the issue. I’m homeschooled so I can squeeze extra writing in. The issue is I’ve hit a wall. I think I’m partly scared to write more? It’s like I can’t think what to write. I think that is partly because I’m sort of filling in parts right now, because I can’t take too big time jumps (because of the way I’ve written it so far) and because I don’t have any plot ideas until I get ahead in the story. I may start writing in a different part and come back to the place I’m stuck in. But that brings me to my other problem, which is I can’t get motivated. I just sit down and write, but all of it is horrible (as you can probably tell from this comment), usually I’m happy with my writing…but I just can’t GET it! I don’t know what to do! How do I push myself to create better writing? How do I motivate myself to write more?

    • Samantha, I feel a lot like you! I am in NaNo, but am far behind and wanting to get as far as I can before the end of the month. And I’m feeling stuck too! Writing stuff that I’m not sure should even be in this story! But the main thing you should remember is this quote I love from Shannon Hale. She said “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” It’s okay if your writing feels terrible! You’re only putting together a story that will be made beautiful over time as you rewrite and redraft and reshape it. You can do it! Don’t let lousy writing moments make you feel like a horrible writer! You can DO it!! and never throw it away because everything you write can spark an idea, can be improved, can be made beautiful. Good luck!

  6. I managed to finish NaNo this year with 50k for the first time, and this post helped IMMENSELY. When it was time to push through to the end, I was feeling so defeated and empty of creativity, (it didn’t help that agents must be cleaning out their inboxes for the end of the year and I got 2 rejections within 12 hours of each other) but the ideas and encouragement in this post were exactly what I needed to restart my brain! I’m going to continue to let the wisdom here fuel my story as I try to finish this draft. Thank you!

  7. I’m having trouble sticking with the stories I write. I’ve been messing around with this idea for years and I haven’t been able to find a path I like and keep going. I keep trashing it and starting over. It’s about a teenage amnesiac who finds out he belongs to another dimension full of superpowered people. They don’t accept him, however, because he has not only their average powers but also “Dark” abilities, indicating he actually comes from the Dark Dimension (which is a dwelling place for interdimensional monsters and the like). Because of this his only friends are people similar to him, with oddly mixed powers and strange and often mysterious backgrounds.
    It’s a story I’ve worked so hard on to get absolutely no where with, and I’m frustrated to say the least. Advice, anyone?

    • Here’s some questions that might spark ideas.

      What does your main character want? Why can’t he have it? What bad things will happen if he fails? He’s unaccepted by other people: why is this important to him? What will he loose if he’s unaccepted?

      You might want to look at the overall plot:
      What kind of story is this? An overcoming the monster story, where his former “weakness” becomes the only thing that can defeat a villain? A rags to riches, where he discovers his worth and finds his own place in the world? A quest, where he has to find something to save his homeland, and prove himself worthy of it? Is it a voyage and return story, where the goal is to escape the other dimension and come home in safety? A tragedy, where he becomes a villain? Or rebirth, where he starts to become a villain but finds a way, usually through the help of someone else, to become whole? A comedy or romance, where everything becomes more and more convoluted until a single event brings everything back into light? (Those are Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots)

  8. This was a great post! I have a question. Do you think all stories need a plot twist? I read a book review where the reviewer complained about how predictable the plot twist was, and it made me wonder if it’s worse to have predictable plot twists, or none at all? And if plot twists are necessary, how do you write a good one? I don’t know. It’s kind of stressing me out, actually, and I’d love to hear any thoughts any of you might have!

    • I do not think all stories need them. I imagine that the problem would be if the book had a plot twist that was supposed to be a surprise but wasn’t (oh, the main character actually is the lost princess? Um, duh?).

      The problem with predictability is that everyone is different: everyone will guess differently, and everyone has different preferences for how much they like to be surprised. My husband is very good at predicting what will happen, and he’s fine with that. He likes to stop and analyse and guess what’s coming up, and he likes to be right. I would rather keep reading, and I sometimes get annoyed if I predicted everything and it does happen.

      I remember a good article on endings being both inevitable and unpredictable. I’ll still look for it, but I think this statement by C.S. Lakin sums it up:

      “As contradictory as this might sound, endings in novels need to seem inevitable without being predictable. When your reader finishes the book , she should feel that this was the only way it could have ended. Everything has led up to this finale, and it just plays out perfectly. This isn’t predictability. You don’t want readers thinking they knew exactly what was going to happen and are bored as they hurriedly flip through the last pages of the book.

      Recently I read a couple of award-winning sci-fi novels that were really pretty good until about the last fifty pages. I found myself starting to skim through the inevitable spaceship battles and the endings—to the point that I didn’t really read the last chapters. Such a difference from Orson Scott Card’s masterpiece Ender’s Game, considered one of the all-time greatest sci-fi books written (and I agree!). The surprise twist at the climax and the completely unexpected ending blew me away. Yet, I could say it was the best (and truly only) ending for the book, and entirely unpredictable.

      It’s okay for readers to know what is going to happen (boy gets girl; Frodo destroys the ring), but they don’t know how. You want enough surprises and twists that the reader is thrilled, but you don’t want them throwing that book across the room upset that your ending makes no sense.”

  9. Thanks for the feedback! It was very helpful! Christie V Powell, you’re an angel. Melissa Mead, to answer your question, I usually get off track around when I have my MC realize he doesn’t belong to the dimension he’s originally in when the story starts.
    (Thanks again, Christie!)

  10. As a sort of after-question, does anyone else have any difficulty naming things without making it ridiculous or absolutely dorky? For example, in my story there’s the Dark Dimension, Reality, and the third dimension, Elysium (and an in-between place called the Nexus), and these were easy to name. But then I’ll attempt to name one of the monsters (from the Dark Dimension) and it’s awful. My sister laughs at me, it’s so pitiful; I don’t blame her, either, because it’s probably hilarious to watch. The best I could come up with was stuff (cough*trash*cough) like “the Ripper” or the incredibly original “Thing,” which both make me cringe a little. And maybe I’m just whining and these are perfectly fine–I’m known to have that tendency.

  11. If you want to have a darker sounding name, maybe try to focus on the sound of the name rather than the meaning. For darker possible magical names use harder sounding letters, like certain g’s, and c’s, and also t’s and k’s and x’s and so on.

  12. Why not try a foreign language? I typed in “The Ripper” in Google Translate and I came up with some cool-sounding stuff, especially in Japanese, Polish, and Russian. You don’t even have to use the whole word; you can use half the word or rearrange the letters. Hope I helped! : )

  13. I have trouble with names too, but I find it helps to have lots of options. I make lists of names and pick the one I like best.

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