What Watching This Year’s Best Picture Nominees Has Taught Me About Storytelling

Open your mind. Take a long, honest look at our world.

I’m not the best movie watcher. On average, I probably watch about five movies every year, two or three in theaters at the most. I tend to stick to movies with hype, movies adapted from books I’ve read. I stay in a film-viewing comfort zone. At least I always have, until this year.

As I’m writing this, I have seen all but three of the movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. That means I’ve seen more movies already in 2017 than I usually watch in a year – and that’s not counting movies I’ve seen that are up for other awards.

Why have I suddenly set out on this journey to show up to the Oscars more prepared than usual? I like award shows, for one thing, and I like being able to cast my own vote, so to speak. If something wins an award, I want to be able to say, “Oh yeah – totally deserved.”

But there’s a second reason I went on a movie-renting spree this month: for the stories.

You see, when you stick to only watching Disney movies (that now includes Marvel, Star Wars and those soon to be animated classics we all love), you severely limit your own perspective on the stories being told through screenwriting. I’m not saying these movies don’t have good stories. But movies are nominated for Best Picture for a reason, and from a writer’s perspective, I wanted more insight into why.

I got a lot more out of the experience than I expected.

I can appreciate a good movie. I can nod and say, “Wow, that was deep.” But when you watch a variety of movies, from different genres, with different directors, written for a variety of audiences, you suddenly realize there are so many things and people and places in this world you never think about. You are just one very small person in a very big world, and these stories are here to show you that even though you may not be personally affected by something, someone, somewhere, is.

And the same way you should branch out and watch/read/listen to stories your normally wouldn’t, you also need to do the best you can to TELL stories you normally wouldn’t tell.

I don’t believe we can successfully create if we do not also consume. I’ve known since the start of the year that I wanted to put a major focus on consuming more – reading more books, watching more movies and shows, being willing to explore things I normally wouldn’t touch. The more you open yourself up to different stories, whether you think you’ll be ‘interested’ in them or not, the better you’re going to be at telling stories yourself.

You have to open your mind to characters and events and perspectives you aren’t familiar with. You can’t just keep writing some variation of the same characters and storylines over and over. People get tired of that, and so will you. You have to stretch beyond your own storytelling comfort zones – not because any kind of diversity apparently sells books, but because your potential audience isn’t just made up of one kind of person.

If you want to reach out and affect people, as all writers desperately long to do, you have to make your audience uncomfortable, and surprise them, and make them think differently, challenge their beliefs – which you have to do first within yourself as you’re creating, before whatever story you’re telling has the capacity to do the same for someone else.

While it’s true that many good stories are good because of their relevance – we need to hear a particular message, and this story or that just happens to shout it loudly in our faces – many good stories are good because they don’t play it safe. They’re raw and loud and very clearly have something to say. Not all stories have to be clever or witty or happy – because life isn’t always that way, and sometimes the world needs a story that’s honest and not always easy to watch.

I encourage you to tell a different story this year – you know, that story you’ve thought about writing, but haven’t because it might be too ‘risky.’ Or insert whatever adjective you’re using as an excuse. Stop holding yourself back. The best stories are the ones you dare yourself to write – and then follow through until they’re finished.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

Storytelling Tips for Fiction Writers

Tell good stories.

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The more I read, listen to and watch things other people have written, the more I am inspired to write my own things – and write about writing things. This blog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for all the extra time I spend doing things that, on the surface, seem like major time-wasters. Thanks, Marvel.

It’s October! November is closing in, which means it’s time to talk fiction. Are you ready? Here are some of my favorite storytelling tips for fiction writers.


Create characters that are exaggerations of people you know

This is my favorite thing to do, so I do it as often as possible. Readers want characters that make them say, “Oh yeah, I definitely know somebody like that.” Why exaggerate their attributes? Because that’s what makes it fiction. People don’t always want to read stories with characters that are exactly like the people they have to put up with every day. Storytelling can reflect real life even more effectively when that know-it-all from biology class turns up in a novel and, instead of that passive aggressive way he tries to one-up the smartest girl in school, tries to get her expelled for making him look bad in front of the class. The latter makes for a much more interesting and dramatic narrative.


Unravel the past little by little, but never tell the whole backstory

Readers want to know everything about the events that led up to the present, which is exactly why you shouldn’t give them what they want. Not all of it, and certainly not right away. Everyone has a past, but sometimes not telling your readers what they want to hear is what keeps them interested in the beginning. I’m watching Luke Cage right now … we learn in the first episode that our beloved MC did jail time for something. What? We don’t know. Mystery! Then we get some background on that later. As far as I’ve gotten, we still don’t know what he did. It’s not the whole story, but it’s critical to the plot. And if we already knew what happened, the story would have less momentum. Reveal your backstory in fragments. And always keep at least a few of them to yourself for all eternity. Muahaha!


Go where your characters go

Obviously not very practical advice if you’re writing a novel set in space, right? Still. Something I’ve found helpful, when I’m having a hard time immersing myself into a scene enough to write decent dialogue, is to go to the place my characters are and try writing there. A kitchen. A coffee shop. A college campus. One of my favorite scenes from the book I finished writing last year took place on a train. Guess where I was when I wrote that scene? Yep – on a train, commuting to work. Put yourself in your characters’ place – literally. When it’s possible, when you’re feeling stuck. It helps. It forces you to picture the events in the story as they happen, which helps everything flow together as you’re writing it.


Strive for the “nooooooo” reaction

I do not react audibly to TV shows, movies or books very often. But, when I’m watching or reading something really good, there is always usually a point where I, out loud, will “Nooooooooo” my way into irreversible despair. Something happened. A character I like is in trouble. Someone betrayed someone else. Doesn’t matter. You have to build rapport (“nooooo”) with your readers before you can leave them emotionally wrecked. If they’re not invested in the characters or events, your plot twists won’t have any effect on them. You want to be able to picture their “noooooo” reaction. Make them hate you. Don’t forget to make them love you again later, though.


Everything I know about fiction writing, I’ve learned by reading and watching just as much as I have by actually sitting down to write. Think of your favorite book, show or movie. How do they use these techniques to win you over? The comments section is open if you have a good example to share. :)


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

Steve Sands/GC Images.

How to Be a Better Storyteller

There still has to be some truth in there somewhere. Something that makes a reader or listener or viewer go, “Ha! So true!”

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How does one tell a great story? Being a better storyteller takes some practice, but it’s easy, and fun, once you get the hang of it.

Learn to twist old stories into new ones

Have you ever had one of those moments when the realization hits you that none of your stories are original? It’s true, to a point. All stories have the same basic elements to them when you look at them from their foundations. New characters and settings and relationships make new stories, but sometimes borrowing from familiar tales and adapting them is also an effective, and entertaining, method.

Think of all the Disney movies you love. Those are all adaptions of fairytales and older stories. Many of those adaptions have since been adapted again … and again, and again (like, we love Peter Pan, but seriously). It’s okay to get creative and put a new twist on a story that has already been told. Audiences love it. They want to be able to identify similarities to the stories they already know and also marvel at the new elements you bring into it.

Focus more on your audience, and less on yourself

Sometimes we tell stories because we need to send a message we wish we would have heard previously. Stories help us cope with things we have been or are going through, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. However, we can’t keep the focus primarily on ourselves all the time. If stories were just for us, always, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But if you’re reading this post, it’s likely you don’t intend to write stories only you will read.

It’s fine, even wise, to start out by telling a story for your own benefit. We tell some of our best stories when they resonate with situations we understand. But always remember that you aren’t the only one who might be reading it. Always think of your audience. How will they benefit from the messages your story is sending? What do they need to hear? Is there a need that’s being satisfied? Create a checklist in your head and make sure you and your audience both are going to get something valuable out of it.

Exaggerate, but make it believable

Good stories are dramatic. They take seemingly normal events and exaggerate them in order to make them more entertaining. While stories often serve as a way for readers to step out of their normal everyday lives for a little while, they must also be relatable. There still has to be some truth in there somewhere. Something that makes a reader or listener or viewer go, “Ha! So true!”

Think of something that’s happened in your own life recently. Now imagine how, if you would have been in control of that series of events as a storyteller, you would have ‘told it better.’ We all exaggerate when we tell our own stories anyway (you know you’ve done it). Do the same thing when you’re writing.

So let’s practice, shall we? Tell us a brief story in the comments. A few sentences or a paragraph. Have fun with it. :)

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Storytelling Tips from Classic Pixar Movies

Learn key storytelling strategies from your favorite animated stories.

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Stories are everywhere. If you’re a writer and you want to learn how to tell better stories, it might seem, at first, that reading is the only way to do that.

Not quite. Movies and T.V., if written well, can teach the same lessons and give you more visual representations of different techniques. Pixar movies are a fun platform to use because, honestly, who doesn’t love them?

We’ll look at two Pixar favorites to illustrate several storytelling strategies viewers can learn by watching them: Finding Nemo and Inside Out. And before you start screaming about Inside Out not being a classic Pixar movie, keep in mind its Golden Globe win and Oscar nominationS and how many times you wished you could have gone to see it in theaters last year. Instant classics count.

Start with a character’s routine and shatter it

Inside Out is one more recent example of how this works. We are guided through the first eleven or so years of Riley’s life and introduced to the details of how her mind and Emotions operate on a day-to-day basis. But as Riley’s world shifts, so does the way she thinks and feels – and suddenly Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness find themselves trying, and failing, to keep up with the changes.

Character development begins when environment, relationships and routine spiral out of alignment. When nothing is the way it once was, the story must lead its characters into the unknown, where they will emerge, one way or another, changed.

Throw the biggest possible challenges at your MCs

Up until Nemo goes missing, Marlin’s fear of the ocean’s (and life’s) uncertainties holds him back, and keeps his son on a metaphorical leash as a result. Then he is forced to face that fear in order to find Nemo again – a challenge he never would have taken on if it weren’t for his son’s accidental fishnapping.

Thrusting your characters into uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous situations forces them to learn to rely on their strengths and teaches them how to compensate for their weaknesses when solving problems.

 

Let your character make the final choice

At the start of writing a story, you might think you have it all figured out. You might sincerely believe you are in complete control of the beginning, middle and end in sight.

But the truth is, you’re not. And the first step toward telling a good story is accepting that.

Marlin chooses to swim over the trench. Joy chooses not to listen to Sadness when she warns her about getting lost. Whether these elements were original parts of the story or not, in the final product, they shape the rest of the events that lead to a resolution.

Sometimes your character might make the wrong choice at first. But they might make the right one in the end. It’s not up to you; it’s up to them. Maybe you don’t buy into the philosophy that says characters have complete control over our stories. But if you sit back and let them show you what they are capable of, you will be glad you gave them a chance.

Our favorite stories aren’t just for our own entertainment. They’re also tools to help us learn to build our own fictional worlds the best way we can.

Image courtesy of forbes.com.