Hi Gang. Craig here again, breaking rules left and right. I’m surprising my colleagues today, because I’m supposed to pick apart a book cover. We have assignments on Fridays, and I don’t feel like it today.
We can learn a lot from covers, but I think that knowledge is finite. We’ve talked before about the rule of thirds, the S curve, and other visual elements. Besides, I have something else I want to talk about today.
I rewatch a lot of movies with an author’s eye. In other words, I dissect them to learn things. This got me to thinking some of you might appreciate bits of what I look for. Films are like the Cliff’s Notes of stories. A lengthy work is depicted in a short time frame on the big screen.
A few weeks ago I re-watched Sherlock Holmes. This is the 2009 version with Robert Downey Jr. What I’m looking for is good story craft, character depiction, etc. You could find worse films to study.
It opens with a magic ritual underground. This sets the tone for what kind of story it’s going to be. The beautiful woman about to be sacrificed heightens the viewer/reader intrigue at an important point in the story. Our heroes save the day, case closed, another job well done.
Only then do we drift into character development. The marvelous eccentricities of everyone involved. While all the characters are over the top, we still relate. We get all of Holmes’ idiosyncrasies, but a bit of Watson too. Hints at his gambling and his struggles between the fun of working with Holmes vs what a young man should be doing as far as marriage and becoming respectable. Holmes struggles with the idea of losing his only friend to the bonds of marriage.
The characters are over the top. I’m finding out this sells pretty well. My most popular characters to date are a talking hat and a bunch of animated root vegetables.
If you’re looking for classic Conan Doyle, you’ll be disappointed. Don’t watch it for that, take it as it comes. This is much more of what I call a “buddy story” than the original material. I like the banter between the characters.
The beautiful victim turns out to be Irene Adler, former Holmes adversary and love interest. They don’t spend a bunch of time on her backstory. They hint at it via a gem she stole somewhere, and a few lines from Watson. She’s wonderful in that she’s interesting, untrustworthy, and helps drive the story. Pay attention to how little backstory goes into this tale. They may have had an advantage in that it’s Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t see it that way. Not everyone has read those stories.
Look at the settings. Every scene is busy and intriguing. The dirt streets, the people, carriages, and horses. It’s also suggestive of Victorian decorating where every inch is filled with bits and bobs.
The bridge construction is a plant that pays off later in the film. There are others, many others. Adler’s stolen gem is also a plant. There’s even a glass thread. You can use plants and payoffs to your advantage in your own stories. Watch how they used them.
Notice they didn’t explain every little detail as things added up. Closure on some of this waits until the end of the film. Blackwood somehow survived his hanging. They never slowed down the action to explain all this. They focused on the story rabbit and chased that rabbit. There is a powerful lesson in this for fiction writers. Focus on the rabbit. Don’t slow things down to explain too much. If you think some closure is needed you can circle back later.
There are other examples, like the filthy laboratory. Holmes gathered evidence there, but the writers focused on the rabbit.
Notice how the film starts out in daylight. Every scene happens during the day until things take a dark turn. Then all the scenes happen after dark. The film ends with the rising sun to indicate the positive change at the end. It walked the viewer into the mood very well. Writers can manipulate readers the same way.
I’m not saying to write this story, just study it. Find the tricks that might work for you.
How about it, gang? Do you watch films as a form of case study? Can you adapt some of this to your own writing? Would you rather have had a book cover? Am I in trouble with my colleagues?