Two weeks ago I attended AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. This three day conference features panels, lectures, discussions, readings, and a huge exhibit hall filled with small presses and lit mags. I felt like a kid in a candy store, ready to gobble up as much delicious writing wisdom as I could fit in my mouth. I went to roughly a dozen panels and filled an entire notebook with notes. I can’t recapture the magic or the energy of the conference in a single blog post, but I will try to recount some of the wisdom I acquired. This will likely be the first in a series of posts, each one recounting a specific aspect of the conference.
This first post is about an amazing panel I attended on the second day called, “Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers,” featuring authors Cori McCarthy, Ingrid Sundberg, Jennifer Bosworth, and Amy Rose Capetta. This captivating panel discussed using screenwriting techniques in order to create a tight, engaging work of fiction, especially in the realm of YA. Of all the panels I attended, this one featured the most thorough and in-depth craft talk and left me feeling like I had tangible, concrete tools to make my writing better. I couldn’t help but start scribbling down my new ideas while simultaneously trying to take detailed notes–it was that inspiring! Here are a few of the main points touched on in the panel and my major takeaways.
Don’t Be Afraid of Structure
A lot of writers are afraid that they are stifling their creativity or making a “cookie cutter” plot if they use traditional story structure. However, the rigid structure of screenplays can actually create a tighter novel–one where your audience anticipates the story in an engaging way. It’s not cheating on “falling back” on a cheap trick when you use structure, either. The panelists quoted the wise Joss Whedon on the issue of structure: “Anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.” Structure is a framework for keeping your writing–and yourself–under control.
Ingrid Sundberg noted in the importance of of “The Midpoint.” When we think of plot in the typical 3-act structure, most writers focus on the inciting incident and the climax as the most important plot points of the story. However, the midpoint–which serves as its own de facto act break in the middle of Act II–can be just as important.
Ingrid used a lot of famous movie examples to push this point: In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape at the midpoint; in The Hunger Games, the actual games start at the midpoint; in Back to the Future, Marty McFly ruins his parents’ relationship at the midpoint; in Toy Story, Buzz realizes that he’s a toy at the midpoint.
You get the idea. The midpoint is important. Ingrid says that by moving a major emotional revelation to the middle, you energize the rest of your novel. This is a great tip for avoiding the dreaded “murky middle.”
Cinematic Motifs and Visual Imagery
While movies are very visual, it seems counterintuitive that books would be as well considering they’re just text. But there are actually a lot of cinematic techniques you can use in order to add important visual representation to your novel. Jennifer Bosworth suggested creating elaborate Pinterest boards for everything; adding concrete and specific details to your writing helps the reader visualize and fill in the blanks.
When we think of cinema we often think of action movies–big elaborate fight scenes and Michael Bay-level explosions. But the panelists urged writers to find the cinematic nature of the story beyond fights. Cori gave the example of using metaphors as emotional language–for example, in her novel Breaking Sky, she would describe the characters’ emotions as being “revved up” or “stalled out,” which fit in thematically with the novel’s overall theme (it’s a school for elite fighter pilots).
Another good tip is to use film cuts in your writing. This is knowing where to clip off emotional scenes in order to preserve tension. For example, instead of resolving a fight, clip off the scene before it’s finished. Leave bits and pieces in the subsequent scenes so that readers don’t know exactly what happened.
And if you need to reveal major information, don’t do a “walk and talk”–where characters simply word vomit all over each other while walking down a hallway. Make it more active. Show the reader more and tell them less–use visual and physical cues as well as objects to show what the characters are thinking and feeling and what they are trying to convey. And don’t resort to mundane actions, either: “shrugging” and “nodding” can almost always be cut because the actions are implied in the dialog.
Cinema in Genre and Contemporary Fiction
When it comes to genre fiction, the panelists talked about the use of constraint and creative limitation. By limiting the magic, you carve the story. Don’t try to do everything at once. As Jennifer Bosworth suggests, don’t try to write, “Buffy meets The Ring meets the Bible meets Twilight.” Focusing in on one idea and confining yourself to its limitations will help create a stronger story.
But when it comes to contemporary, how do you make real life interesting? According to Cori, “Contemporary writing is cinematic in nature because memories are cinematic.” When we remember an important moment in our lives–our first boyfriend, senior prom–we remember very specific and vivid moments, not a play-by-play of everything that happened. Think about how the character will remember these moments fifteen years from now, and that should be the root of your scenes. And don’t forget that contemporary isn’t just straight real life–it can feel whimsical, too. “Fantasy has to be relatable, but contemporary can be fanciful.” (Cori’s one liners were totally on point during this panel.)
It’s hard to convey how amazing and informative this panel was, so I hope this post passes on some of the great tips I got from Cori, Ingrid, Jennifer, and Amy Rose. It was difficult trying to take detailed notes of everything they were saying while writing down all of the ideas for my own novel that were simultaneously whizzing through my head. Thank you so much to these amazing ladies for such a great panel!