What Hollywood Taught Me About Writing -or- Think Like a Mechanic

Today’s topic is one I have been kicking around for awhile, but seem to have trouble putting into words.

There are two sides to writing (at least, arguably there are many more.)  There is the immersive, magical experience that we wish to create for our readers, and sometimes experience ourselves even while we write.  And then there is the mechanical side–the words and their rhythm and whether that works, the scenes and the way they are built to create a plot and whether that works…you can spend a lot of time diving into the mechanics of what makes a good story good, and where a not-so-good story missed the mark.

Usually these two sides work together.  But as writers, I think we have a tendency to put more emphasis on the magical side, and sometimes this works to our disadvantage.  A writer who wishes to regularly produce consistently good work must have a solid understanding of story mechanics.  There just isn’t any other way.  As in any other field, raw talent will only carry you so far.

How many times have you overheard people discussing a movie, and heard someone say, “The book was better?”  How many times have you said it yourself?  To me, this has to do with the magical side of writing.  You are expressing a preference for the experience that was present in the book–and perhaps expressing disappointment in the movie.

But this disappointment is also an opportunity for learning, for deepening your understanding of story mechanics.  Remember that we are dealing with two different media, and that ways of conveying information that work beautifully on the page may not adapt well to the screen.  But at the end of the day, both media would like to tell the same story.

So, in the interest of time, or best utilization of the medium, or any of a hundred other concerns, the decision is made to cut particular scenes from the narrative as it existed in the book.  (This is usually what disappoints us–I know with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, these were my primary disappointments, even though the movies were great.)  Sometimes this will not affect the primary storyline.

But sometimes, scenes that are cut contain information that is necessary to the storyline.  Remember when the Order of the Phoenix movie did not show our characters cleaning the Black house, and so never showed the discovery of the golden locket?  I remember wondering how they would handle that later on, when it became necessary to the plot.

This is where the opportunity for you as a writer is.  With that information gone, the story is broken.  How can you fix it?

You have to think like a story mechanic.  You have to look at the information that needs to be conveyed, and look at the overall storyline, and work out the best spot to put it in there, without breaking anything else.

A lot of writers are loathe to look at a story that way.  They would much rather stay on the magical side.  I think we all start out like that.  Unfortunately the only way to identify and fix a lot of story problems requires the ability to think like a story mechanic.  To step up and really consistently produce quality work, we have to get comfortable with that view, and the sooner the better.

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