Storytelling in the movies – Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, and Arrival

This is the last in my series about what makes a story worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. In this post I’ll be covering three movies I’ve seen before.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.

The Movies

Hidden Figures

I’m going to skip the synopses for this one. As usual, the Metacritic version is much longer than the IMDB version, but both do a great job of summing up the plot. When the time comes to prepare my own tagline and query letter synopsis, I could do a lot worse than to study the summaries on these site.

Hidden Figures is about three brilliant black women who were mathematicians at NASA when we first went to space. It takes place in Virginia in 1961. At the time, Virginia was still segregated and ignoring the Supreme Court’s Brown vs the Board of Education decision, and NASA was still the domain of men in white shirts and dark ties. The reality of segregation and condescension towards women runs through the movie, manifested by things like a “colored” ladies room that’s half a mile away, a dress code that requires women to wear heels, and NASA’s refusal to promote Dorothy to supervisor although she’s been doing the supervisor’s job for a year. More subtle is the constant use of first names, while people higher in the chain of command are always referred to as Mr. or Mrs. But things are clearly changing: Mary is encouraged by another outsider – a Polish Jew – to become an engineer, and when she learns the rules have changed so she needs to take classes that are only offered at an all-white school, she goes to court and wins the right to enroll. And John Glenn insists on having Katherine check the new computer’s calculations before he’s sent into orbit.

We meet Katherine when she’s a child, reciting prime numbers as she walks through the forest. We see her being selected for an advanced school, the only one available to black children, and find out her teachers have taken a collection to help with the expenses. The next scene sets us up to know all three women and their distinct personalities. They’re broken down at the side of the road on their way to work. Dorothy is fixing the car, Katherine is staring into space thinking about something, and Mary has to be cautioned not to say anything to annoy the state trooper who’s pulling up, lights flashing.

The plot is complex. There’s the main plot about the U.S. space race with the Soviet Union. Obviously, we all know what happened, but the movie manages to make it suspenseful anyway. Then each of the women has her own plot about her career at NASA, and we also get a subplot of Katherine’s family life and romance with a handsome officer, and glimpses of Mary’s husband’s involvement with the civil rights movement and Dorothy’s life with her sons. The movie manages to weave all these parts into a coherent whole. It doesn’t use a parallel structure like Hell or High Water did. Rather, we mostly follow Katherine, but we get a scene about one of the others dropped in when it comes around on the timeline.

Much of the movie’s impact comes from the visuals. There are clips of actual footage from the time, including tv reports, people watching the launch from the beach, and reporting on civil rights protests, as well as Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon and the shots of John Glenn’s launch and splashdown. Katherine’s daily run in heels, carrying her work, to and from the only ladies room she’s allowed to use, is a powerful recurring scene.

What did I learn about storytelling? Once again, the importance of establishing the main character and getting the reader to care about her right away. And letting the facts speak for themselves. There’s not a lot of comment about the unfairness of the segregated system; it’s just there, the way things were in that time and place, and the implications are obvious. Focus is important here, too, even though or maybe because the plot is so complicated. In each scene, we know what to pay attention to, so even though the point of view changes, we’re not lost.

Manchester by the Sea

I was surprised to find out that this one didn’t hold up to a second viewing as well as Hidden Figures and Hell or High Water. (Or I suppose maybe it’s seeing nine movies in seven days, exhausting my emotions.) It’s still a spectacularly beautiful movie, with its New England waterfront locations, and the performances and storytelling are still terrific, but it just didn’t have the emotional impact it had the first time around. That emotional impact was a big part of what made me love this movie the first time I saw it.


So the big question about this movie’s storytelling is how did it create that emotional impact? We first see the main characters in a flashback to a scene on the water where Lee is horsing around with his nephew Patrick while his brother Joe pilots the boat. It sets the stage by showing the closeness of the family, and immerses us in the setting. From there, the movie jumps to the present, where Lee is a stoic handyman living in a one-room apartment in the city. We see him working hard, uninterested in the tenants, even when he overhears a beautiful woman telling a friend she has a crush on him. We get a glimpse of his anger at the world when he blows up at a tenant who’s rude to him, and see it in full swing when he picks a fight at the local bar because he thought a couple of guys were looking at him.

The movie sets us up to wonder what happened to make the fun-loving uncle into the miserable bar brawler in a dead end job. His brother’s death is the catalyst for the movie’s action, forcing him to go back to his hometown, where he learns to his surprise that he’s been named as his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian. We get a flashback to later the same day of the opening scene, and now we get to see Lee with his wife and children, continuing the happy family theme; another flashback to a hospital scene where we learn what was wrong with Joe that led to his death; and still another showing why Joe’s wife isn’t there to take care of Patrick. The movie reveals what happened to Lee in one long flashback to the terrible accident that killed his children. It was an accident, but it was also his fault.

The movie’s realism gives it power. You can easily imagine having something like that happen to you. It’s the kind of thing that makes people obsess over whether they locked the door or left the iron on, and go back to check over and over – because the consequences could be so dire if just this once you didn’t check, and you left something cooking on the stove. So a big factor in the emotional impact is showing us what if, what if this did happen in our lives, what would we become.

The part that was missing the second time around was the suspense. The movie builds the question up in our minds, and when we finally learn what happened, it’s simultaneously a relief and a tragedy – it’s a relief to know at last, and I think that adds a bit of punch to the incident itself. Not to get too psychoanalytical or anything, but the lower impact on me could be because I had to work hard to recover from the tragedy the first time I saw the movie, so I came to it already a bit numb. Or as I said in the first paragraph, maybe I’ve just passed my limit for emotional reactions after a week that included Moonlight, Lion, and Fences.

Lessons for writers: Use the reader’s own experience to connect emotionally to the character, and use different emotions to magnify the impact. Show how the most mundane and well-intentioned decision, like building up the fire to keep the house warm and walking to the store instead of driving after drinking, can lead to disaster. Salt the drama with some humor, like the subplot where Patrick is trying desperately to get some time alone with his girlfriend. And once again, as in the other movies I’ve seen this week, introduce your main character’s good, relatable qualities early on, so they’ll stick with him later when you show him at his worst.


I am one hundred percent positive this one won’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a science fiction movie. No science fiction movie has ever won, and not many have been nominated. This one falls into my personal category of “cerebral science fiction movies” that are more like written science fiction than the action movie variety.

Now watch me be proven wrong.


This is a movie that benefited from a second viewing. It has a complex plot that only becomes clear near the end of the movie, and knowing the story made it fun to see how everything fits together.

The movie begins with a montage of Louise and her daughter, from babyhood to her death as a teenager. Throughout the movie, we get more flashes from this period of Louise’s life. This beginning establishes her as a loving mother, and the next scenes establish her language expert credentials by showing her in front of her college classroom and in her book-lined office. We meet her physicist counterpart, Ian, in the helicopter that takes them to Montana where one of twelve alien ships has landed. We know how to think about him because we’ve all seen Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.

It’s not such a character driven movie as, say, Moonlight or Fences. The plot is what’s important here. We have mysterious alien ships and spend the whole movie learning what they’re doing here, and the human interest story of Louise and her daughter turns out to be an important way the main plot is disclosed. As it turns out, to the aliens, “there is no time,” meaning not “hurry up, we’re almost out of time” but literally time doesn’t exist as the linear stream we all think we live in. They pass this perception on to Louise, who doesn’t understand it at first – she can’t figure out why she keeps dreaming about this child – but she eventually figures it out, just in time to save the world and the aliens. They’re here because in 3,000 years they are going to need humanity’s help, but humanity needs to learn to work together, hence the twelve scattered ships interacting with twelve different governments. Louise figures it out when she remembers an event 18 months in the future when the Chinese leader tells her that she called him 18 months ago on his private number and told him his wife’s dying words (and gives her the number and the words so it will be possible for her to have called him). The final scene of the movie closes the loop on the first scene; Louise marries the physicist and the little girl will be theirs, and the physicist will leave her when she tells him about the girl’s early death.

Lessons for writers? In order to make the complex plot comprehensible, the components had to be simple enough to follow and recall, like the mother-and-child scenes, and a scene with a guy watching a Rush Limbaugh-like character on tv. Pace the science-y stuff. To show the science of learning to communicate with the aliens, the movie started slow and detailed, then skimmed over the bulk of the work, just showing little snippets to convince us that work was still going on. Keep your eye on the main plot. The parallel plot, where the public is panicking, other governments want to attack the aliens, and our own military people are being pressured for quick results, is mostly conveyed through tv news in the background and interactions between the scientists and the military. It sets the tone of urgency, the ticking time bomb (and there’s literally a ticking time bomb in one scene), but it’s always clear to us that the aliens and the efforts to communicate with them are paramount.

Well, that’s the end of movie watching for us until after the Oscars. I’ll be watching the ceremony this year with more interest than usual, now that I’ve seen these nine films. According to the Internet, the smart money is on La La Land to take the prize. I think Moonlight has a shot, too.

How about you? Have you seen these movies? What did you think of them, and if you’re a writer, what lessons would you take away? Please tell me in the comments.


Storytelling in movies – Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water

Third in my series about what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar,.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

Hacksaw Ridge

The synopsis from Metacritic says:

In Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And here’s IMDB:

WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

I’m seeing a pattern in the synopses on these two websites. IMDB seems to be in it for the long haul, providing a very brief synopsis you’ll be able to look at quickly ten years from now when you’re trying to remember which movie it was that you saw Andrew Garfield in, or when you’re trying to decide whether to watch it when it comes around on tv. Metacritic seems to be using the advertising copy provided by the studio to try to get people to decide to see the movie in the theatre. I could be wrong. In this case, both descriptions are accurate; you just get a bit more detail from Metacritic.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

The storytelling questions I came to this movie series with are how the movie establishes character and generates sympathy for the hero, how it orients us to time and place, how the plot and its beats are arranged, whether it follows the Hero’s Journey pattern, how music and cinematography contribute, and how a writer could accomplish the same thing on the page without benefit of sound and pictures.

Hacksaw Ridge was made by Mel Gibson. So it’s not surprising that the battle scenes (basically the last half of the movie) are graphic and bloody, and that the hero’s religious convictions are a major theme and motivator. It’s also a true story. The real Desmond Doss died about ten years ago, and he actually saved even more soldiers than the movie shows.

We meet the hero as a kid of about 10 in rural Virginia. Interestingly, the first scene in the movie is actually the hero’s father, drinking alone in a graveyard and talking to the dead. The first scene with the boy establishes his energy and his bond with his brother, and the next shows the boys fighting as their mother worries and their father drinks hard liquor from a pint bottle and watches. Des almost kills his brother and is horrified by what he’s done, suggesting an early reason for his later pacifism. We don’t see the whole story of why he refuses to touch a rifle until much later, in a flashback to a scene where he threatens his father with a gun, after stopping his father from shooting his mother.

When we first see Des as a young man, he’s in church. In the same sequence, he saves a guy who’s trapped under a car and takes him to the hospital, where a doctor praises his action and where he falls in love at first sight with a pretty nurse. The time-and-place orientation is through clothing, vehicles, and the way the hospital is equipped. Des is sweet, sincere, heroic, and decent; we know this within probably the first 10 or 15 minutes.

The plot moves along pretty quickly, following a hero’s journey story arc. Des lives an ordinary life, albeit punctuated by his father’s brutality that’s explained by his own experiences in World War One, until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and every young man in town volunteers to serve. His brother signs up first, but Des follows shortly thereafter (we never learn what happened to his brother). Des is off to basic training, where the Army has put him into a rifle company instead of medic training as he says he was promised. Things are bad in basic training because he refuses to touch a gun, and he’s courtmartialed, but his dad pulls strings to get a letter from a general that straightens things out. We next see Des as a medic assigned to that same rifle unit, on its way to take a ridge in Japan. The rest of the movie is horrific battle and aftermath, and Des patiently, heroically, saving one wounded man at a time and lowering them off the ridge to safety.

I can’t say how music contributed to this one – I didn’t notice it at all. I did notice the lack of music in Fences, which was mostly dialogue and silence. I have a feeling that Hacksaw Ridge used music the way most good movies do, to subtly reinforce the emotions drawn out by the action and dialogue. The cinematography here is vivid.

What did I learn? Similar to Moonlight and Lion, the hero in this movie isn’t like most moviegoers, but he has qualities we recognize and admire. His motivations are strange; we understand the perplexity of the other people in the army, but eventually we do understand why he is the way he is. So, patience. Draw the character gradually, and trust the audience to give you time to do it, as long as you’ve given them enough reasons to like the character in the first place.

Hell or High Water

This is the first repeat viewing for me, out of the movies in this Best Picture nominee film series. From here on out, this will be my second time at all the remaining movies.

Once again, Metacritic provides a lot more information in the synopsis than IMDB. So far, though, Moonlight is the only one where I thought the two websites gave me different expectations about the movie.


Two brothers—Toby (Chris Pine), a straight-living, divorced father trying to make a better life for his son; and Tanner (Ben Foster), a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger—come together to rob branch after branch of the bank that is foreclosing on their family land. The hold-ups are part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that powerful forces beyond their control have stolen from under their feet. Vengeance seems to be theirs until they find themselves in the crosshairs of a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement. As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the last honest law man and a pair of brothers with nothing to live for except family collide.


A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

This is a heist movie, so the structure is different from the hero’s journey form, at least as I understand it. It follows two parallel tracks: one for the two brothers, and one for the Texas Rangers who’re trying to catch them. The relationships within each pair, as well as the west Texas landscape, are just as important to the movie as the characters and the action.

Brandon Sanderson talks about three major forces that make a character interesting: competence, likability, and proactivity. Younger brother Toby is high on competence and likability; his older brother Tanner is high on proactivity; ranger Marcus is high on competence and proactivity; his partner Alberto is more likable and seems competent in different ways from Marcus. The movie shows these qualities through actions and interactions, like the scene where Tanner impulsively robs a bank while Toby leaves a $200 tip for a flirty waitress, and the scene where Marcus drags his partner to the small town whose bank branch he’s figured out the pair will rob next.

One challenge for the movie is explaining the bank robberies sympathetically and organically. It does this by dropping bits of information into early scenes so we feel the brothers have a good reason for what they’re doing, and then through a conversation with a lawyer that spells it all out clearly.

The landscape also helps explain what’s going on. The brothers drive on roads with billboards advertising debt relief and going-out-of-business sales, the towns are nearly empty of people, and the scenery outside the towns is vast and desolate. One scene has a group of men on horseback driving cows away from a grass fire that extends as far as we can see in each direction along the horizon. Oil drilling rigs here and there are the only signs of prosperity. Alberto, who’s Native American and Mexican, comments that the land belonged to his ancestors until the army took it away, and now the banks are taking it away from the people who stole it 150 years ago.

What does this movie teach about storytelling? With a parallel structure like this, you need to spend enough time at the beginning of each storyline to let the reader get to know and care about the characters. The movie alternates between the two viewpoints, giving more screen time to the brothers early on and more to the rangers towards the end. Give the reader a chance to breathe: the action in the movie could have been relentless, but it takes breaks for banter between the rangers, a funny scene with a steakhouse waitress, and a playful scene with the two brothers roughhousing against the sunset. You can make your messages blatant, like the main plot about how the bank was ripping off Toby’s mother, or subtle, like what really happens when just about everybody is carrying a gun (people are more likely to get shot, and there’s always someone with a more powerful weapon than everyone else).

Up next: Hidden Figures tomorrow, then Manchester by the Sea on Wednesday, and finally Arrival on Thursday.

Storytelling in movies -La La Land and Fences

Continuing my quest to learn what makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, thanks to Harkins Theatres’ film series.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies

La La Land 

Very different synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail piano gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

IMDB is short and sweet:

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Honestly, who writes these things?

La La Land is a musical, and I knew from the previews that it does homage to many classic movies and movie musical tropes, so I wasn’t sure if my list of questions about characters, plot, pace, and emotions would exactly work for it. I went in with an open mind.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The movie opens with a musical number in a traffic jam on the freeway, and we don’t see the romantic leads till the horns start honking and the cars start to move. We follow Mia, who runs into Sebastian two or three times during the day, and then backtrack to follow Sebastian through the same day. It’s a while before we really begin to see the two of them as individuals; at first, they’re just romantic leads in a musical, and that’s okay. We’re predisposed to like them because, well, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and because we’ve seen movie musicals before. There’s an engaging early scene where Mia auditions for a part and emotes up a storm while people are taking phone calls and ordering lunch.

The plot arc follows the standard movie musical structure for the most part, but it has some surprises. A fantasy sequence of music and dance, no dialogue, shows what could have been if things had gone differently.

Music is hugely important in this movie, naturally. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who venerates the old stuff, but gets sidetracked for a while in a successful band that leans to pop and electronics. Music and dance is what brings Mia and Sebastian together, and the quiet song they sing together is the theme of their romance. One of the best scenes in the movie is an audition where Mia sings, unaccompanied and surrounded by darkness, about her aunt who lived in Paris.

What does this movie teach about writing? Write your own story, do your own art. At one point, Sebastian is giving up his dream of opening a classic jazz club, because people don’t like the music anymore. Mia tells him that people will love it because of his passion; people love what other people are passionate about. Use shortcuts, like the tried and true tropes in this movie that made it unnecessary to spell everything out for the audience – know what the reader will assume or figure out on their own, and trust them to do it. And don’t worry too much about loose ends – if you dazzle people with the main story, they won’t care that Sebastian’s sister shows up for a scene early on and is never heard from again.



In this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, an African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.


A working-class African-American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.

After seeing the movieSPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s a reason Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are nominated for Oscars and have already won other awards for their performances in this movie. They, along with everyone else in the cast, including a 6-year-old girl, are perfection.

It’s easy to imagine this one as a play. Almost all the scenes take place in the back yard or the kitchen of Troy and Rose’s Pittsburgh house. It’s all dialogue, too. Smart, fast, emotional, true. That Pulitzer is well deserved.

The opening scene introduces us to the main character, a garbageman, who banters with his partner and complains about the policy that only lets white employees work as drivers. We gradually learn more about him as the movie goes on, and also about his wife and son. By the end of the movie, we’re – okay, I’m – heartbroken over the things he’s done to them, but also heartbroken on his behalf.

This is what the movie does best. Troy is smart and charismatic and hardworking and responsible, but he’s also selfish – everyone else is a bit player in his life, seems to be his view – and hot tempered. Rose can sometimes get him to do the right thing, like loan ten dollars to the son from another mother who stops by on Friday nights, but not always. She’s unable to get him to see the college football recruiter who wants to sign up their son, and Troy deliberately sabotages his son’s chances out of what might be pique over a minor lie or, more likely, jealousy, since his own chance at playing pro baseball was spoiled. Early on, it seems racism killed his baseball chances, but later we learn that he spent 15 years in prison and was too old to play when he got out.

And by the end of the movie, Troy has betrayed Rose and kicked their son out of the house – a house we’ve learned he only obtained through the money paid to his brother for a World War Two injury that left him brain damaged – and yet – we’re still sympathetic to the character. We see all the worst aspects of him, but we also understand how his own father’s sins have affected him, and we see how he’s overcome at least part of that heritage.

What can I learn about writing from this movie? If I could analyze how it achieves what it does with Troy, I’d be a much better writer than I am. The playwright, August Wilson, was a poet who died in 2005 at age 60, and Fences is part of his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle. I read a bit of an interview with Wilson about his approach to writing, and he said, essentially, he just starts with a line of dialogue, and follows where it leads; he learns about his characters through what they say. Another commenter notes how you keep seeing different aspects of his characters. I guess the lesson is to follow your own instincts, keep digging deeper into your characters, and show who they are through their words and actions; trust your readers to see beyond the surface.

August Wilson was a prominent playwright and there are lots of articles, books, and YouTube interviews available on the web. Once I’m finished with this film series, I want to read more about him and read his plays.

Next up: Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water.

Storytelling in movies – Moonlight and Lion

What makes a story good enough to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? I’m going to find out.

Over the course of the next week, I’m going to be seeing all nine of this year’s best picture nominees. Our local movie chain, Harkins Theatres, is holding a Best Picture Film Series. $45 bought me all nine tickets, plus a souvenir cup and a popcorn voucher. (Such a deal, right?) I’ve already seen four of the movies, but I think seeing them all together in only a week is going to give me a different perspective.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.  

The Movies


The first thing I noticed when I read about this movie online is the difference between the synopses on Metacritic and IMDB. Here’s Metacritic:

Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.

And here’s IMDB:

A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

Which description would bring you to the theatre to see this movie? To be honest, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see it if I only read the Metacritic description. But that IMDB blurb? Heck, yeah, I’d go. I don’t know which description will feel more accurate once I’ve seen the movie, but the difference highlights the importance of the tagline and synopsis you develop to sell an agent on your book, as well as the blurb that ends up on Amazon and your back cover.

The movie is based on a play. Plays have a different rhythm than movies do – it’s almost like the difference between a poem and a novel. I’m curious to see how the 3-chapter structure works here.

What I’ll be thinking about while I watch, and afterwards:

* How does the beginning of the movie set us up – orienting us to time and place, getting us to engage with the main character?

* What’s the plot arc? I wonder if it will be three distinct arcs that fall within an overall arc. Where do the beats fall? What’s the pace?

* What emotions does the movie invoke, and how does it do it?

* How does the movie tell us how to feel about each of the characters? What are the signs and signals, and when do they appear?

* How do music and cinematography contribute to the experience? How could those be replicated in words on paper?

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

The IMDB synopsis is more accurate. There’s an important romance in the movie, and it has a big impact on the main character’s life, but it doesn’t dominate the story.

The opening scene knocks us off balance with a dizzying, spinning effect where we’re circling around and around, watching a drug dealer trying to get rid of a user who doesn’t have money for what he needs, while the dealer’s boss drives up in his growling Chevy. At the same time as we’re off balance, we’re oriented to the world of the movie – there’s a two-story yellow apartment building and palm trees to tell us we’re in Florida, and we’re obviously not in the part where people live in mansions overlooking the ocean. The scene cuts to a kid in school clothes running through tall grass, desperate to escape the bullies who are chasing him. This sets us up right away to be on his side. He responds to kindness with stoic silence, and he doesn’t go home that night, making us wonder what’s going on with him and his family. We gradually get to see him loosen up, only to be knocked back down.

Beats in the plot come regularly. The arc flows through the whole film, and it hits some of the classic hero’s journey notes, although some is off-screen. The mentor dies between chapter 1 and chapter 2; and the huge adversity – jail time – that transforms the main character happens between chapter 2 and chapter 3. It’s an effective choice, because it keeps our attention focused on the main character, who he is, and his internal journey, not on external events. That dizzying, disorienting camera, like an animal circling its prey, comes back at the end of chapter 2, when we can see the betrayal coming, and we know what it will lead to.

This is an intensely emotional movie. It feels real, every step of the way, even in the artistically manipulated scenes where the lighting is strange and we stop hearing the dialog when the boy tries to shut his own ears. It takes us from hopelessness to cautious hope and romantic excitement and back to despair. The final chapter is so understated but so moving – we’re pulling so much for the main character to be the person we want him to be, and when he takes a chance and drives down to see the man who loved him then betrayed him, only to learn he has a wife and child now, we’re heartbroken with him, and when he confesses that there has never been anyone else for him…Cue the tissues.

The cinematography is brilliant. I read that one deliberate choice was not to use the dark colors and harsh light that makes life-on-these-mean-streets seem so brutal in a lot of movies – here, the colors are soft, the ocean where the boy learns to swim is pale greenish blue, the yelling mother is lit with pink light. It contributes to the real feeling here. These are real people, not caricatures.

 So what can I learn from this as a writer? Focus, I think. The filmmakers knew what was important about the story, and that’s what they told. They trusted the audience to make connections. And the importance of drawing on experiences you know intimately. Both the playwright and the screenwriter grew up in Miami with crack-addicted single mothers. And possibilities: the power of art to open people’s minds. We see the unfairness of sending Chiron to prison, and the human impact of that action, and by implication maybe we’re more receptive to people who tell us too many black men are locked up; we see the pain of a little kid who’s different, and maybe we’re more careful about passing judgment on people.

Oh – and be careful how your story is described on the back cover, on Amazon, and on social media. We might have missed this wonderful movie if it weren’t for this festival, because the Metacritic synopsis makes it sound like a steamy romance.


Interestingly, the synopses of this movie are identical on Metacritic and IMDB:

A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.

This one is based on a book, which is based on the author’s own experience. The screenwriter is a poet, a novelist, and a film and book critic. I wonder if I’ll be able to see the influence of that poetic sensibility in the way the movie story is told.

During this movie, I’ll be thinking about some of those same questions as for Moonlight, but I’m also curious to find out:

* Does the movie follow a Hero’s Journey type of storyline? I already know the author is an Australian businessman, so the major beats – leaving the familiar world, learning to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure, and the homecoming – are all there. I’ll be looking for the threshold, the mentor, the helper, and the death and rebirth.

After seeing the movie – SPOILERS FOLLOW

This was a more Hollywood-feeling movie than Moonlight. Nicole Kidman is in it, and its geography is huge, spanning large swaths of India and a beautiful beach house in Tasmania.

Lion doesn’t waste any time before introducing us to the main character, a 5-year-old hopping on a train with his older brother to steal coal that they sell for milk. The boy is lively and brave, worships his brother and loves his mother. The movie conveys this with subtitled dialogue – they’re speaking in Hindi – and action. We’re immediately engaged with this kid and his impoverished, rural family. The mother is loving and hardworking, the big brother is fun and protective, and what gets the kid into trouble is his refusal to accept any limitations.

The pacing was unexpected. We spend a lot of time in India, getting to know the rural family, and then after Saroo accidentally ends up 1,200 miles away in Calcutta, seeing him struggle to survive on the streets and in a horrifying orphanage. The Tasmania portion is probably less than half the movie, and includes lots of flashbacks that return us to India to see still more scenes of Saroo’s early life. Even with the flashbacks, and with the terrific actor Dev Patel as the grown-up Saroo, the Tasmania portion felt slow. There’s a bit of getting to know the character again, which we need to do because twenty years have gone by, and then his memory is triggered by a Proustian moment – at a party with Indian food, he encounters a treat he begged his brother to buy him – and he spends the next five years searching for his birth family. The search boils down to using Google Earth to hunt for the railroad station he remembers, somewhere in a 1,200-mile radius of Calcutta. While he’s searching, he’s hiding his search from his adoptive parents, assuming they’d be hurt if they knew, and his obsession and his refusal to let anyone help drives his girlfriend away.

Hero’s Journey elements? There’s the ordinary life, then being thrust into another world, the abyss at the orphanage, the struggle to get home, and finally the homecoming. You could consider the big brother as the mentor early on, and then the hero has to go on without his mentor. The death and rebirth come in the middle, if you think of the orphanage as the death and the Tasmanian adoption as rebirth.

I noticed the music more in this movie than I did in Moonlight. It effectively set the mood, helped tell the story, and oriented us to the Indian settings. There’s a scene in the orphanage where the children sing a song to mask the sounds of what’s happening to one of them – it’s a strange, haunting song, and it dispels whatever familiarity we’re starting to feel with India. Here’s a link to a video of it with subtitles.

This is another emotional movie. In the early, India scenes, the emotions come out of the action – being trapped on a speeding train, lost in a sea of humanity, running from adults who want to do who knows what (we all saw Slumdog Millionaire, so we know their evil intentions), trying to explain where you came from when all you know is a five-year-old’s pronunciation of your home town and that your mother’s name is Mum. The Tasmania scenes’ emotions come from the actors’ performances. The most emotional scenes are at the very end, when Saroo has finally found his home and sees his mother for the first time in 25 years. The real photos shown with the credits further tug at your heart.

And then – just before the credits roll, there’s a card that says 80,000 children a year disappear in India, and the producers are dedicated to helping organizations that are trying to solve that problem. Unbelievable, right? Here’s an article about child trafficking in India.

So what does this movie teach me about writing? No matter how foreign the character is, we can relate to him through qualities we recognize, like spunk, humor, and love of family. Motivation is critical; some of Saroo’s behavior as an adult seems inexplicable – this is a true story, and people do act in inexplicable ways in real life, so  I think in a book you’d need to acknowledge how weird this is, and maybe propose some explanation. Subplots can keep things moving when the main plot is slow, as with the movie’s subplots about the disturbed brother, the girlfriend, and the adoptive parents when the main plot is basically a guy clicking on a laptop.

Next up for us: La La Land which we’ll be seeing tonight. I expect the audience will be bigger for this one – it’s Saturday night, and the movie’s had way more publicity than the first two did. I’m hoping for a little break from the emotional rollercoaster.

Have you seen Moonlight and Lion? What did you think? Please add your comments below.


Brandon Sanderson 318R #6

The amazing Brandon Sanderson shares his wisdom about the business side of writing in session #6 of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.

Class #6: The business of writing.

While you’re writing, you should just be focused on the best artistic decision for your story. Ignore any ideas about what might be marketable. Once you’re done, though, he says:

Lock the artist in the closet, take their manuscript, run away giggling, and try to figure out how to exploit it.

Self publishing

Once upon a time, this was called vanity publishing. If you wanted to see your book in print and couldn’t get a traditional publisher, you’d spend a bunch of money to get some copies printed and hope you could sell them. Some famous writers self-published their books, but it wasn’t very common.

Around 2010, when everyone got Kindles for Christmas, ebooks came into their own and the world of self publishing changed. Now, self publishing has settled down as a valid and legitimate way to sell books. On Amazon, something like 30-40% of all books sold are self published. Amazon controls and dominates the ebook market, with about 85-90% of all ebooks being sold through Amazon.

The big selling points on self publishing are:

  1. Control – You choose the cover, nobody can put a spoiler on the back of your book, and you decide what ends up in the final copy and where it’s sold. In traditional publishing, you’re dealing with one publisher in the U.S., another in the U.K, another in India, etc., but when you self-publish your ebook, you can click a button to make it available worldwide
  2. Revenue per book – In general, you make 70% of the cover price. At Amazon, you get 70% if you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99; if you price it higher you only get 35%, and you also get less if you price it lower.

More to come on this in a later class, when Sanderson’s on book tour and a self-publishing author friend will be filling in.


Some professional writers have some traditional contracts but self-publish some of their stuff. Shonna Slayton, who I wrote about earlier, has a traditional publisher for her fairy tale retellings, but recently self-published a historical novel. The dream would be to traditionally publish print books and self-publish ebooks, but Sanderson only knows of one person who managed to get a contract like that (Hugh Howie with his Wool series).

Small press

If you sign up with a small press, you may be able to get a contract that’s more favorable to you than a traditional contract, similar to the deal you get if you self-publish. The small press will do the same things the big publishing house will do, but you get a higher rate.

Traditional publishing

The advantages of traditional publishing are the things the company does for you (cover design, editing, etc.) and the advance they pay you.

Here’s what you can expect or might run into if you have a traditional, big publisher:

  • Advance – For a first novel, the average advance is $5,000 (but $2,000 and $10,000 aren’t uncommon). This isn’t free money: it’s an advance against royalties your book will earn. The company prepares a P&L (profit and loss) estimate, looking at similar books by new authors and guesstimating how many they can sell and figuring costs based on a hypothetical print run. They’ll try to give you what they think you’ll earn in the first 2-3 years. If you have a good agent and get a better-than-usual advance on your first book, it’s not unusual to get a bit less on your second, but your advances should climb from there.
  • Royalties – The author gets a percent of the price:
    • Hardback 10-15% of the cover price (not the discounted price the reader might actually pay at B&N)
    • Paperback 6-10% of cover price (8% mass market, 10% trade paperback)
    • Ebooks 25% of net, meaning the actual selling price after discount
    • Bargain bin books – see returns, below
    • Some contracts give a variable percent based on sales, like 8% for the first 75,000 copies and 10% after that.
  • Earning out the advance – The company doesn’t start paying you royalties till they’ve surpassed the advance. You don’t have to pay back the advance if your book doesn’t sell as much as they thought it would. You only have to repay the advance if you fail to deliver the book. On the other hand, you’ll get a smaller advance on the next book.
  • Returns – To get stores to take a chance on new authors, publishers allow them to return any unsold books for full credit. You lose the royalties for those. The company sells the returns for $2 each (you can buy them at this price too), the stores sell for $4, and you get 6 cents a copy. It’s not a bad thing to have your books in the bargain bin where new readers can discover you.
  • Sell-through – This is the percent of the print run that actually sells. The publisher usually prints about twice as many books as they have orders for. The magic number is 80%: if you sell 60%, that’s okay. Less is a failure, and so is more than 80% because it means the publisher underestimated sales and should have printed more.
  • Audio books – These are sold almost exclusively through Audible. You’ll get about 20% of the credit the user spends, or about $2 per book. People who buy audiobooks generally only buy audiobooks, and they buy a lot of them. If anyone ever actually buys the physical audiobook, you make more.
  • Bidding war – Your agent may get multiple offers for your book. If that happens, they go into a book auction. Your agent knows how to do this. If you’re spectacularly lucky, you could end up with a $100,000 advance for your first book, which in turn means the publisher is invested in you and will do the marketing to try to make it profitable. If your initial contract runs out before the end of your book series, you can go into another bidding war.
  • Reversion of rights – It’s common for contracts to have a clause that says if the book sells under a certain number, you get the copyright back (normally, the publisher gets it for the life of the copyright). Ebooks throw this off, since they don’t have to be printed. If you get a contract, research this.


Whether you’re on the bestseller list or not depends on a lot of things, including which list you’re looking at, and who else released a book at the same time as you did. The first time Sanderson was on the list, he was #31, based on 2,300 hardcopy sales the previous week; and the first time he was #1 on the list, he’d had about 80,000 copies sold that week, and the #2 book was at about 32,000. If John Grisham had released a book that week, Sanderson’s 80K wouldn’t have put him at #1. The lowest number he’s heard of for a #1 print bestseller was in the 20,000s. Preorders count as Day One sales.

This puts a whole different perspective on a book I recently read, The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, in which they taught a computer to read books and predict whether or not they’d hit the New York Times bestseller list. I’m in a group that’s reading through that book’s 100 recommendations in reverse order, and this month-to-month variation probably explains a lot. Here’s a link to the group discussion – join us if you’re interested!

Ebooks have changed things a lot. Sanderson’s 2,300 to get on the list was before ebooks came along. Now, more people are earning money by writing, but the people at the top are earning a bit less than they used to, because people have more to choose from now.

The competition for the list depends on which list you’re looking at. USA Today and the Times of London only have one list that combines all book sales. The New York Times list is broken down into several lists nowadays, with ebooks separate from hardcopies, and different lists for different types of books. I remember the controversy over this when the Harry Potter books were new and had overtaken all the grownup books on the NYT list; the paper’s decision was to separate them out (here’s their article explaining the change). On Amazon, they subcategorize like crazy and they rate not just books but authors – check out the author rank for Brandon Sanderson as of today:


If you make it onto the NYT list, your publisher will call you on a Wednesday to tell you. They’ll send you champagne (Sanderson is Mormon and obviously speaking at BYU, so he had some funny comments about that). You don’t need any help to see where you stand on Amazon; it’s right there on the book’s page.


This is the real reason people go to traditional publishing these days, because you can go far higher than you can with self publishing or a small press.

Once you’re established, your publisher will send you on a book tour, in which they fly you around to a bunch of stores where you do signings. If you’re a new author, they might bundle you with a few others, making it an event. Some stores have regular signing events and customers who show up every week for that; at others, you might be sitting by yourself. Sanderson had some tips for making the most out of book tour, whether anyone shows up for it or not:

  • Meet the store manager – If you can get a bookseller interested in your book, and they read it and like it, they will hand sell it for you. The Mysterious Galaxy bookstore was a big help to Sanderson. This is how a lot of fantasy and science fiction books become bestsellers – through word of mouth. A bookseller named Steve Diamond personally sold 100 copies of Sanderson’s Elantris.
  • Give the bookseller a copy – Sanderson asked his publisher to give him a box of books one year, and the day before each signing, he visited the store and said “if I give you a free book, will you read it?”
  • Sign books and leave them on the shelf – The signed-copy sticker attracts attention and your book may get featured on an end cap with other signed books for a couple of weeks, attracting more.
  • Meet some fans and build a mailing list

It’s rare to get a book tour for your first book. For Sanderson’s second book, Tor sent him on a driving book tour – he lives in Salt Lake City, so they figured he could drive to Fresno and San Francisco. The third year, he called them with a proposal: he and another author he knew would drive and hit 10 bookstores in western states. Tor gave them $1,000, which to them was virtually nothing – book tour typically costs $2,000 a day. He got in a car with Dave, they shared a room, and went to bookstores in Las Vegas, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boise, Idaho Falls where he has relatives, and Salt Lake City. He ended up doing that for 5 years. Publishers are willing to listen to what you pitch to them if you have a good plan.

Generally, your publisher won’t tour you till you have some momentum, so you’ll have to build your own. You can pitch anything to your publicist. Whether they’ll go for it or not depends on the publisher. Publicity is different from marketing:

  • Marketing is expensive. The publisher won’t do a lot of this. An ad in NYT costs $50,000. The marketing industry is set up to sell things everyone uses, like soap, not to sell books. The publisher may, however, spend on targeted ads on Facebook, Audible, or Goodreads. The front page of Amazon and iTunes is all paid advertising space, as is the space at the front of the bookstore and the end caps. The bookstore marketing is called co-op: the publisher gives the store a higher percent off on each book. The advertising budget for Sanderson’s books nowadays is around $150-200K. Giveaways, bookmarks, and postcards are less expensive, and even as a new author, you can usually pitch them on some of these things.
  • Publicity is separate, with a different person called a publicist in charge. This includes interviews, social media Q&As, and book tour. NPR is one of the best places to be – people who read are listening to NPR, so if you can get on a local affiliate, it’s much better than anything else local; if you can get on national NPR, it’s fantastic.

Blog tours

Blog tours are the big thing nowadays. A lot of people follow bloggers, especially in Young Adult. You can write a guest piece on some of these. The key is to read the blog first to see what’s interesting to its readers, and then write a good essay that will be interesting to them. Don’t just write a standard essay about your book.

I can’t wait to be in a position to use this information! How about you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Brandon Sanderson 318R #5

Continuing my notes on Brandon Sanderson’s excellent and generously free-to-the-public videos of his BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction.

Class #5: The Box

As a writer-chef (see #2), your job is to come up with something new, not just follow a recipe. Some classic plot frameworks are summarized briefly in the table below. Think about why these stories work – what emotions do they invoke in readers, why do readers like them? Why are they tasty?


If you use one of these, you make it distinctive by adding your own setting and details. For example, the classic boring life is farming (Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer, whatever that is), but you can come up with your own ideas – maybe a pest control operator in a space station. Each of the beats the classic plots hit can be transformed into something unique in your story. You can flip the whole plot upside down, like riches-to-rags as in King Lear. You can use the underdog sports model in a completely different context.

The point of the frameworks isn’t to say you can’t tell your own story in your own way, but to help you define the story you want to tell. Use them to understand the beats other people have used in similar stories before. Think about why they worked in those stories, and maybe they can help you make your own story better.

The Box

The box you’re writing in has plot, setting, and character tied together by conflict (see #2). Viewpoint and tense are part of the way you write these. There are no right answers. Write what you want to write. Know what the tools are and use them your own way.


  • First person – The character is telling the story. This is the default in Young Adult right now. It’s immediately immersive, with a focus on character. It’s easy and natural to have a strong voice, and building sympathy for the character is easy. The character can address the audience directly. It’s also easier to have an untrustworthy narrator in first person (The Name of the Wind, for example). It usually removes tension because you know the character is going to live. You can have multiple first person characters in one novel, but after two or three it’s going to be hard for the reader. Tends to be bad at immersing you in a whole world full of people. There are a few types of first person:
    • Character tells their story as though it’s a memoir: “I’m going to tell you my story,” “I remember when.”
    • Epistolary, meaning letters. The story is a collection of written documents from characters in the world. Letters, journal entries (like in The Martian), text messages, blog posts, forum posts, government reports. Found footage is the film version of this. There’s rarely any actual prose that isn’t part of the in-world ephemera.
    • Cinematic, common in YA today. It’s as if you’re in their head, their thought bubble, for the whole book. It’s often told in present tense, so you can still have the tension of not knowing if they’re going to survive.
  • Second person – This is very rare and it’s hard to do it well. It shouldn’t be just a gimmick; if you use this, there should be a good reason, like your memory’s going to be erased and you’re writing to your future self.
  • Third person – omniscient – An all-knowing narrator. This isn’t popular right now. Dune is an example of this viewpoint; you know everyone’s thoughts, and the tension comes from knowing something bad is going to happen, not from wondering what’s going to happen. You may have a sense that there’s a narrator, someone telling you the story, although the narrator has to get out of the way when you’re in the characters’ thought bubbles.
  • Third person – limited – Show through eyes of one character at a time. This is the default form for almost all fiction that’s not told in first person. You pick a character’s viewpoint for a given scene; you don’t show anyone else’s thoughts and you don’t see anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see. A student asked how you show things the main character doesn’t see in a mystery, and Sanderson said there are two ways. The easiest is to go to someone else’s viewpoint. Harder is to give your character a blind spot, so the reader recognizes things the character doesn’t notice (it’s hard not to make the character seem like an idiot). It’s harder to have an untrustworthy narrator, but can be done (The Wheel of Time Matt Coughlin books 9 & 10). You want every viewpoint character to feel distinct; the reader should know whose head they’re in within a few paragraphs without telling them. The narrative can be a little smarter or more flowery than the character would be in first person.


Choose between past and present, and stay consistent through the whole book. They’re very similar, and within a few chapters, the reader has forgotten which one you’re using. Present is more immediate but also a little annoying for some readers. Just pick your favorite. Mainstream adult fiction is usually past tense, mainstream YA is usually present tense.