Amber Morrell

writer, reader, librarian

Category: Discussion

Staging the Story: Film Techniques to Engage YA Readers

AWP16ThumbnailTwo 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 Structure12417794_10207689812656583_6309576477689884822_n

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.”

quote1Cinematic 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

quote2When 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!

On Meeting Authors

Melissa Meyer (right) and myself.

Marissa Meyer (right) and myself.

I’ve been very lucky in the past month or so to have the opportunity to meet with two authors that I admire: V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious and the A Darker Shade of Magic series, and Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles series. Meeting an author is more than simply an opportunity to get your books signed and pose for a photo–which I definitely do, but these things don’t represent the total value.

To me, the most valuable thing about meeting authors I admire is perspective. Even if you interact with an author online, getting to meet them in person confirms that they are a flesh-and-blood person and not a magical-goddess-robot-writing machine (though they may also be that. Who knows.).

But seriously: meeting an author not only puts their writing into perspective, but also your own. Every time I meet an author I go home feeling inspired and reinvigorated to keep writing.

For one thing, authors often talk about their origin stories–at V.E. Schwab’s signing in Huntington Beach last month, with Gretchen McNeil and Marie Lu, the three authors dedicated an entire segment of the panel to their origin story. They discussed not only the origins of their characters and stories but also their publishing journeys, and all the sweat and blood and tears that go into the arduous, lengthy process. This is all about perspective–it gives context to the wonderful book you hold in your hands, and it reminds you that one day your random word vomit might also be a wonderful book.

V.E. Schwab (left) and myself.

V.E. Schwab (left) and myself.

I always leave author events running through all the imaginary panels I might one day be on through my head. What will I tell budding writers about the writing process? About the misery and pain it takes to create long form fiction? What will my signature look like? What will my origin story be?

With the internet, published and aspiring writers can interact easier than ever. I follow most of my favorite writers on Twitter, and often we might exchange a few words together. How invigorating it is! How amazing it feels when one of your favorite authors likes a tweet you sent them, or one that you simply mentioned them in. To put your heroes on a pedestal far above you, but to have them reach down and touch you in the smallest ways. It makes a difference.

I have a slew of events planned this spring where I will have the opportunity to meet many more authors and creative people. I’ll be attending the annual AWP conference, the LA Times Festival of Books, and YALLWEST. But no matter how many times I get to meet authors I’m still always excited about it. My pulse quickens and I can’t help but fangirl a little bit once I lay eyes on them in real life. When it comes to your heroes, you really can’t meet them enough.

At a recent signing I attended, I saw a girl bring a book up to Andrew Smith to get signed. He’d already signed it the last time she’d seen him, but she wanted him to sign it again. One signature is a stamp in time: it’s “that one time I met the author and it was awesome.” But two signatures creates a new temporality, one that’s a constant exchange between author and reader, one that says, “I care enough about you and your work to come back again and again.” I hope I have that experience myself someday.

The Wonderful World of Audiobooks

I recently started using audiobooks. I’ve known people that have been listening to them for years, but for some reason I never jumped on the bandwagon. There’s something I romanticized about curling up in bed with a good book and a cup of tea. Of listening to the characters’ voices in my head, in the way I imagined them. Of letting their words and actions reveal unsaid words written between the lines in ways only I could interpret. I’d tried listening to an audiobook once, years ago, and my mind wandered–I heard the words but I couldn’t pin down exactly what was going on, so I gave up. I never gave audiobooks another fair chance, until now.

For my YA lit class, we were divided into groups and assigned a popular YA novel to do a project on. I chose the Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell group, because it’s been on my TBR list and I already own the book. It turned out that the other members of my group had already read it! So I was already woefully behind in the project planning. I knew I had to read it in about a week, on top of all the other reading an English major is assigned, so I was starting to sweat a little. Knowing that I had a lot of driving to do over the weekend, I decided to borrow the audiobook through my library’s ebook and audiobook service called Overdrive and listen to it in the car.

I spent about four hours in the car that day, and I fell in love not only with the story, but the way it was being told. I loved that the narrators did different voices for different characters. I loved that their tone was sassy or panicked or angry or flippant when it needed to be. And I loved, beyond all else, that I could do other things while reading. The next day, at work, I sat at my desk and stared at my email screen while listening to the rest of it (don’t tell my boss). I even put it on 1.25x mode because I wanted to hear it faster. I finished the book on the car ride home and I realized that for all these years I’d been wasting valuable reading time. Whenever I was in the car, or walking to class, or doing the laundry, or vacuuming, I could have been reading!

As soon as I finished Eleanor, I quickly checked out another audiobook. This time it’s The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, which I’m about halfway done with (and don’t worry, I’m not listening to it at work).

This new ability to absorb novels through audio is revolutionary to my way of life. I’m already thinking about books and story all the time. Every waking moment my head is filled with characters and stories, whether they’re ones I’ve read or ones I want to write. But taking five lit classes means I don’t have a lot of time for personal reading; I’ve been doing a lot of “good for me” reading, like Mark Twain and Shakespeare some dense theory articles, but not fun reading. But now, I can do fun reading! And I don’t even feel guilty about it, because I’m doing it when I wouldn’t otherwise be doing school reading, anyway.

One of my worst habits is that I’m bad about doing chores. Laundry piles up, stacks of paper go unorganized, the carpet is usually covered with toys and crumbs. But yesterday, I put on my headphones and went through life in a dreamlike state. I did the laundry, washed the dishes, vacuumed, organized, got gas, picked up some groceries–all while having The Raven Boys dictated to me in a smooth, Southern drawl. Before I dreaded the times when I had to put the book down, pull myself out of bed, and get the laundry in the washer. But now I don’t have to, because I can my stories with me.

There is one downside to audiobooks: close reading is nearly impossible. I get the story, but I might miss words here or there. I can’t go back and reread a sentence to see if there’s a deeper meaning. I can’t judge for myself the tone of a character; I’m completely dependent on a narrator to dictate it for me. For that reason, I don’t think audiobooks will work for most school work, especially where close analysis is involved. For novels that I read for fun, however, I think audiobooks are the perfect medium.

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