Thursday, October 1, 2009

Writing Larger Than Life

When I settle into my seat at a theatre, or snuggle down with a new book, I'm anticipating a story that’ll whisk me away from my world. I want characters, plot, setting and conflict to be bigger, bolder, brighter.

In fact, even most commercials today are larger than life, and the good ones take you on a short ride. I'm sure you all have seen the Caddy whizzing through a tunnel which turns into a blur of colors as Kate Walsh murmurs, "...when you turn the car on, does it return the favor?" I'm pretty sure I want a car that does that, and I've never salivated over a Caddy in my life.

So how can we write larger than life?
1) By making the ordinary...extraordinary.
2) By not forgetting that EVERY BEAT of the story has to show the character's goal and conflict. EVERY BEAT. Good conflict makes good drama.
3) ...see below.

Here's two examples of taking ordinary events and making them larger than life.

Good Night and Good Luck, is a slice-of-life movie about Edward R. Murrow, starring David Strathairn, and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Shot in B&W, the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It wasn't heavy on action, adventure or FX. It was plainly a great story about a momentously black period in our history.

Edward R. Murrow (Strathairn) has to make a decision, something we all do countless times on a daily basis. But by using one of Murrow's more famous moments, the McCarthy hearings, the movie took us on Murrow's journey as he struggled to keep the trust of the American public by not compromising his integrity or bending to the will of CBS studios that wanted him to keep a lower profile and not take on such a high powered Senator.

The story never let the tension of that conflict diminish. Murrow's newsroom hummed with crisis. You inhaled the smoke and felt the sweat. I wanted Murrow to win because his integrity meant everything to him, it was his life, it's what his viewers expected of him. The screenplay writers never let up, never let me forget for a minute how important this was.

Okay, on to print. I recently read an older Nora Roberts series; the Key trilogy. The internal crisis in the Key of Knowledge was Dana Steele's broken relationship and subsequent lack of trust. Nothing new in that crisis, right? But Nora made me weep and cheer because Dana fights so hard against falling in love again with the same guy, and the risk being so broken that she could never again be whole.

Since this was a romance, I knew Dana would find her all important love, but until she did, every argument, every tear was bigger because the risk of pain was so great. Dana wasn't me or you, she was smarter, sassier and bolder. And all this was woven into the plot, because without the love relationship, Dana couldn't solve the puzzle of the key.

Nora made the ordinary, extraordinary.

How did these writers accomplish this? I'm not pretending I know their secrets or am privy to their methods, but I do think this kind of vibrant, larger than life writing is as simple and as difficult as remembering that when we're writing, we're not in Kansas anymore.

By that I mean, we live everyday, go about our lives, deal with dramatic life crises and then we pour all that hard won experience onto paper. Great. But then you must go from Black and White everyday Kansas Farm Life to the Technicolor Land of Oz with your conflicts, plots and characterizations, while keep your character's goals simple.

Dorothy wanted to go home again. Dana Steele wanted love and Edward R. Murrow wanted his integrity intact. It's how they got there that sweeps us away in beautiful, bold Technicolor.

In my opinion, this kind of larger than life writing is what will win over our audience and keep our careers moving straight up the charts.

Oh, yes...lesson number 3? Learning to stop when you see too much purple on that Technicolor page. That's not writing larger than life, that's just overwriting.



Donnell said...

L.A. great post, and I love your last line. Overwriting is not writing larger than life. Well done!

Nancy said...

LA, I love this post! Sometimes I forget to turn that goal equation around - to look at what the character stands to lose by NOT meeting a goal that TRULY means the world to him or her.

Thanks for the timely reminder!


Carol Kilgore said...

Great post filled with things I need to remember.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Donnell,
Thanks for the kind words. Writing larger than life isn't easy. I have to remind myself constantly when I write that I'm on a journey fantastique.


Leslie Ann said...

Hi Nancy,
Great succinct recap of what I was saying!! Good to see you here.


Leslie Ann said...

Hi Carol,
Thanks for visiting Five Scribes. It's not easy to write like that is it? Well at least, not for me. But everyday, I try to put myself in my audience's seats and give them a great journey.


Helen Hardt said...

Like Donnell, I love the last line about overwriting. This is all great advice!

Leslie Ann said...

Thanks Helen,
It's good to know the post resonated with people. I really appreciate your comment. Thanks again.


Neringa said...

LA, you are absolutely right, it is all about the big picture! And MAGIC!

Great article!
Continue to shine!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Neringa,
MAGIC. The most important ingredient, I think!! Now if I could conjure some on a daily basis....


Audra Harders said...

Yes, LA, Yes! Larger than life writing is what it's all about!

Great examples, great analysis.

When I sit down to watch a movie or snuggle down to read a book, I don't want much--just a journey that's unforgetable.

It's all about learning the secret of making all the elements in a story click.

You are so right, my friend. May all our projects go so well : )