Learning from other mediums

The Small Man has been ill for the last week, so he’s spent a lot of time on my lap, watching his three favourite movies; Wall-E, Toy Story 2 and Bolt.  Over and over.  And over.  I can pretty much recite them all by memory now.

The interesting thing is, after seeing them so many times in a row, I’ve stopped seeing the story, and now I can make out the structure underneath.  It’s fun to analyse the writerly tricks and see what has been used to good effect.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

In all three movies, foreshadowing is precise.  Each moment in the climax has been neatly foreshadowed earlier in the movie. For example, at the beginning of Wall-E we see that he has a selection of spare parts to repair himself, an important detail for Eva’s rebuild at the end.  And that information was deftly inserted into a humorous scene where Wall-E teaches Eva to dance.  Just a moment, but an important one.

“Bookending” has also been used to effect.  This is where a defining scene or moment from the beginning of the story is repeated at the end to show the changes from the story.  In Toy Story 2, we see Woody ‘shelved’ in the beginning due to his damage, and his fear that Andy will abandon him.  At the end, Woody is damaged again, but this time Andy repairs him, and Woody realises that his fears were groundless (the whole point of the movie is about facing your fear).

And all three movies use the same structure.  Intro, first conflict, rising action, turning point, climax, denoument.  In Bolt, we get to see him in his normal environment in the studio, believing he is a super-dog.  Then the first conflict, when Penny is ‘captured’ and Bolt gets accidentally freighted to New York.  Then the rising action as Bolt fights to make his way back to Penny, and discovers along the way that he is not, in fact, a super-dog.  Then the turning point, as he finally makes it home, but thinks Penny doesn’t love him.  The climax, when he rescues Penny from the fire, and the denoument, when Bolt, Mittens and Rhino go to live with Penny.

Watching these movies has taught me three things;

  1. Write simple stories well
  2. Show the gun in the opening sequence, so your reader won’t be thrown at the end
  3. Tie your ending to your beginning

Who says you can’t learn from television?

Your turn.  Do you agree or disagree?  Have you ever had a revelation about your writing from watching a movie or TV show?  Have you ever used visual techniques in your writing?

8 thoughts on “Learning from other mediums

  1. A very excellent post! The foreshadowing is definitely important and Pixar, I’m convinced, has the best minds in film working for them to do it “just so”. It takes a deft hand to do all of what you mentioned above, both in writing and film, in such a way that nothing feels spoiled or eye roll worthy.

  2. I enjoyed your post and smiled at the thought of you sitting with your son watching the movies over and over again but actually analyzing the writer’s style. Good content to share! and way to go, mom. You score in both arenas.

  3. Good post! I agree–you can learn from television. I know when I watch movies or shows I tend to examine them like literature and look at structure and character etc. When I teach my class about “what is literature?” (or at least get them to think about the question if they can/want to) I point out to them that tv shows/movies can be seen like a novel or short story (not always “serious” literature though) because that structure of intro, first conflict, rising action, turning point, climax, denouement exists in that medium.

    Sorry if I sound a bit repetitive :-) Enjoyed the post!

  4. Love it, Merrilee! Way to turn being stuck with toddler movies into part of your writer’s journey. I do think that children’s stories (The Prydain Chronicles is an old favorite and perfect example) and Hollywood movies often rely on a classic story arc, and can be great learning tools. I recently tried to break down one of my favorite romance novels from the 80s — and found it held a classical four-act structure at its core, as well.

    I’ve only managed to see Wall-E so far, and found it touching — although because it’s me, I began to criticize it at the end and say that after being born and living their entire lives in zero gravity, and having done so for generations, human beings would be crushed by the return to Earth… and take generations to get back their legs, and that’s if their lung function could support their new circumstances at all. I also wondered where they’d been getting their food and fuel supply for a couple thousand years without soil, rain, or a regular sun cycle, especially if photosynthesis was dead on the home planet (where’d they get the seeds?) and lamented how the premise still seemed to return to that fundamentally modern sense that we can easily survive apart from the Earth — even as its message centered on the need to care for the Earth.

    F. turned to me after my rant and said gently, “It’s a children’s movie, honey.” ;)

  5. I love Bolt! That was one of my favorite movies that came out that year. Did Kung Fu Panda come out that same year? I love that movie too.

    Have you ever had a revelation about your writing from watching a movie or TV show? Have you ever used visual techniques in your writing?

    After watching Pirates 3, I had this stroke of genius and plotted the next three storylines in a series of novels. The story has since changed from them, but it did help me get things out of my head. I try to use visual techniques in my writing a lot, since i see it in that medium and I want to create the picture as clear as possible.

  6. Oh, I SO agree!!!

    Haven’t seen Bolt but I have thought for years that the Pixar studios have the most consistently good story-telling of all modern movie studios. Early scripts had people like Joss Whedon working on them, so it’s probably not surprising. But head of Pixar, John Lassiter, is a committed story-teller and good scripts always come first – as they should!

    I also highly recommend Monsters Inc for brilliance of writing from a technical point of view – foreshadowing, bookending, great structure, effective use of subplots, well-balanced humour with heart – and of course a solid theme.

    Sadly, lots of “children’s entertainment” is trite and crappy, but there is also gold out there. Which is what I think kids should get all the time anyway (an old hobby horse from when I worked in the industry – don’t get me started!!!)


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