Is It A Book or A Movie?

Sunday, May 19, 2013
I recently took a class on story structure for novels and, for about the thousandth time, wondered whatever happened to studying books in order to write books. I blame Christopher Vogler, who wrote a wonderful book called The Writer's Journey. Vogler is a Hollywood consultant who was (and is) called in to save movie scripts. He had noticed that all successful scripts could be seen as following Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This structure is also referred to as The Hero's Journey. Vogler's theory is that ALL movies (and, by extension, stories) can be seen in light of a series of specific events. In his book, he illustrates this with movies as different as Star Wars (an obvious example) and Romancing the Stone (not so obvious). Writers latched on to this guaranteed formula to a successful story.

And it wasn't only scriptwriters. Novelists found Vogler's book invaluable in plotting their stories. I was one of the ones who embraced his theory with great enthusiasm.

The thing is, while stories in all forms have much in common, the medium they're told in, whether as a movie or a novel or a poem or a ballad or even a mural like Guernica, changes the details of how they're told. Not everything is a movie.

But teachers of classes on plotting tend to think it is. A couple of years ago I took a plotting class and the teacher informed us in advance she would be using three movies to illustrate plotting. She recommended that, if we hadn't seen them before, we watch them before the class began. In that way we'd have a common basis from which to discuss the class lessons. And that worked for me at that time.

This year, however, I was looking for a bit more in terms of plotting my latest mystery. For one thing, a series mystery doesn't follow the Hero's Journey plot format as closely. For another, there are specific requirements of the genre that have their own challenges. Above all, a mystery is a puzzle. Modern cozy mysteries have added other elements, specifically a romance subplot and a tendency to have a craft or shop as the amateur sleuth's home base, but without the puzzle of whodunnit, you've got a romance novel or women's fiction, not a mystery.

A mystery isn't only the story of the protagonist's journey; it generally involves many people's journeys to get to the point where the sleuth solves the crime. Each suspect has a backstory that has to be developed and carefully exposed. The victim has a story. And, of course, the killer has a story. Many of our favorite detectives have no journey at all. Sherlock Holmes is the same character in the first story as in the last. Jack Reacher is the lone vigilante throughout. Stephanie Plum has a car blow up in every book. But because the people around them change, mysteries are rich and complex stories.

So I decided to take another class on what I thought was plotting that would help me develop the multiple threads I needed in my book. Except the instructor used movies as examples. Even when talking about The Hunger Games or The African Queen or The Help, she referenced the movies, not the books.

When a book is made into a movie, a lot of stuff gets left out. There are only two hours to tell the story, not the ten or more it takes to read a book. Also, there are parts of a book that don't translate well to the screen. A long introspective passage by a main character would be a boring monologue in a movie. And we all know about movies where the ending was changed from the book.

So it didn't surprise me that the teacher had a problem following all the threads of one of my classmate's stories. It did dismay me, though. It sounded like my classmate had a wonderfully complex science fiction story with worldbuilding and multiple races and all the things that go with that kind of sweeping story. The instructor wanted her to simplify it.

What I kept wondering throughout the class is why the instructors never use novels any more to teach people how to write novels. Does reading take too much effort? If it's too hard to read say, three novels (like the three movies we were asked to watch for the other class), what in the world are these people doing teaching classes on how to write novels?

Has our attention span become so short that we can't finish a meaty story? Does that explain the crossover popularity of Young Adult novels?

I've decided I'm done with taking classes on how to plot a novel or how to tell a story. I think I'll read books in order to write books. Which was pretty much what Stephen King said:
Read a lot. Write a lot.

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A Clash of Kings
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