I’ve been evaluating stories with a very critical eye lately.
Ever since I started writing seriously, I’ve done this to books I’ve read, but now I’ve extended the practice to movies as well. I love reading and watching movies for pleasure, but by turning a critical eye to them, I am able to better understand how the writer or film maker created a response in me – made me laugh somewhere, feel anxious or angry somewhere else. I am intrigued to know how good writers create that sense of transporting me out of my world and into theirs.
The elements of a good story are consistent across all media. Even photos and paintings use many of the elements of story in them. For example, one of my favorite paintings at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is of a man sitting at his child’s bedside in a hospital.
It was painted in 1893 by Herman Haag and it is a beautiful representation of a parent’s grief at the illness of his child. There is conflict represented – look at the man’s posture, the odd coloring of the boy’s face, the lack of movement in their positions. There is a story line being presented – look at the barely-eaten orange on the stand near the bed. There is a hope of resolution – look the mother kissing her son just beyond the man, and the family by the window. A complete story is unfolding with craft here. It is sad and compelling, and yet it also leaves the viewer with hope. All that’s lacking is dialog, but when I see this, I can almost hear the hushed voices, the muffled sounds of linens and the shuffling of feet on the wooden floor. These elements are the things I have been taking a very careful look at with conscious effort lately. And I’m not alone.
My writing partner and I have been reading the same books and watching movies with a critical eye recently. We compare our notes and talk about how a particular element was handled. It has been good for both of us, I believe – I can’t really speak for him, but I know that for me, it has strengthened things that needed a little reinforcing. Of course, it has also helped us to identify areas in our joint projet that needed a little reinforcing of their own.
As we move forward with revisions on our collaborative novel, we are uncovering aspects that evaded us in early drafts. We are looking more critically at the story and realizing that some significant changes may need to be made – changes that will possibly mean some major rewrites for both of us. Obviously, since I can’t change a part of the story that I wrote without impacting him, we have to work closely on this, and we have to agree on the changes since they impact both of us. The good news is we work well together. The better news is that we are a few thousand miles apart and can’t physically beat each other for making suggestions that mean overhauling the entire story (sorry, J. But think of how much better this will be!).
This sort of self-teaching exercise isn’t going to work for everyone – as nothing in writing ever does. But for us, and specifically for me, it is reminding me of things I’ve learned through the years in a very practical and entertaining way. It is strengthening my belief in my own abilities, and nudging me ever-so-gently to remember that everyone gets lazy sometimes. Above all, it is a great way for me and my best friend to stay connected while being very productive at the same time. For us – well, for me anyway – it is an excellent combination of work and relaxation, and something I plan to continue for a long time.