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Guest writers series – 5 Storytelling Lessons from Contemporary Films

This guest post is by Savannah Cordava, a writer with Reedsy.

One common piece of advice you’ll receive throughout the writing process is to read as much as possible. After all, who better to learn from than the authors who inspired you in the first place? But for those of us juggling work, family, and social commitments, reading multiple novels a week — and analyzing them for storytelling lessons — isn’t too feasible.

An evening spent watching a film or two, on the other hand, can provide both quality time with loved ones and a masterclass in storytelling… if you pick the right movies, of course. In this post, I’ve put together five storytelling lessons I’ve learned from some of my favorite new films. If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing these yet, make sure to check them out!

1. Context is key

Context is essential if you want your readers to properly understand your plot and your characters. To that end, if your story isn’t set in the modern day — indeed, even if it’s only a few years in the past — you’ll want to clarify the norms and attitudes of that era.

Greta Gerwig does this to great effect in her 2019 adaptation of Little Women. Mid-19th-century social attitudes, particularly those concerning women, are constantly on display in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Presenting these norms allows Jo March — the natural protagonist of the film — to demonstrate her individuality by defying them, from the start when she pursues writing as a woman to the end when she slyly takes control of her own story.

The importance of context doesn’t just apply to fiction set in a different time. If you were writing a sci-fi novel, for example, you’d want to provide enough information about the environment and society to show how they’re different from our own. Likewise, when writing fantasy, you’d need to set rules for your magic system and situate your main character(s) within it — what are their powers, what are their limits, and how do they interact?

2. Give characters depth

Thoughtful worldbuilding and a strong plot will get you pretty far, but in order for readers to invest to the end of a story, they need to care about the characters. That’s why, in addition to a wider cultural context, you’ll also need to develop each individual character in depth.

The MCU isn’t exactly known for its characterization, but some characters do have impressive arcs. For example, Tony Stark’s journey from egotistical, irresponsible playboy in the first Iron Man films to a selfless team player in Avengers: Endgame is extremely well-done — gradual yet steady, unpredictable from the first film but seemingly inevitable by the last.

Not every character needs such an elaborate arc, especially if you’re only writing one book. But characters like Tony Stark implore authors to ask important questions of their own characters, like: What led this character to who they are? What would compel them to change? How will the stakes of their situation, and the influence of those around them, sway the course of the story?

The answers will form deep foundations for your characters, allowing you to build on them for many stories to come — if you so desire. (And if you’re keen on extra-thorough development, try a character questionnaire to flesh them out completely!)

3. Show, don’t tell

Of course, plain descriptions of your characters’ values and motivations can get pretty boring. That’s why you also need to “show, don’t tell”. This golden rule is evident in so many great contemporary films, but I’m going to use Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as a prime example.

First off, there’s no voiceover narration or dialogue exchanges among the characters to tell us that the Kim family is poor and desperate for money. Rather, we see it in the depiction of their run-down home, their dismal jobs, and eventually, the fact that they are willing to ruthlessly scam another family in order to live comfortably at last.

Likewise, we don’t need to be told that this is a film about privilege and class warfare; the contrasting circumstances of the Park and Kim families make it overwhelmingly clear. One particularly memorable scene is when the matriarch of the Park family comments that a recent rainstorm “was a real blessing” to clear the air — as the visuals of the movie cut to the Kim’s basement apartment being flooded and all of their possessions destroyed.

There are many ways to “show” in writing, but foil characters and strong contrasts like this are especially effective. You might also consider using metaphors and symbolism, which often convey important themes and messages more elegantly than straightforward narration.

4. Find the right length

With more showing and less telling, you’ll hopefully avoid the dreaded 1,000-page manuscript. Nonetheless, finding even more opportunities to reduce your word count will make things much easier — especially when it’s time to find an editor.

Bloated films like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice prove that even the most beloved characters aren’t enough to keep fans hooked, as evidenced by the negative reviews and massive box office drop after its first weekend. A significant part of this was its overlong runtime, clocking in at over 2.5 hours and brutally described by one critic as “a near-total drag.”

Needless to say, if a new iteration of Superman can’t excite former Supermen themselves, there’s something wrong with the format. This isn’t to say that you can’t make a long film — or write a long book — of genuine quality. But more often than not, creators hit upon the perfect story length not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to cut.

5. Attend to supporting details

Though you don’t want to write so much that readers drown in the pages, I hope the lessons thus far have made clear that the devil is in the details — and that you should be deliberate even with the smallest of story elements. Secondary characters in particular can make or break a story!

To come full circle with another Greta Gerwig film, we all know that Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird is the central protagonist, but the film’s supporting characters add so much color and context to her world. Beanie Feldstein as Julie, for example, doesn’t just fall into the typical “best friend” trope; she’s a complex and engaging character by herself. While loyal to Lady Bird, she has her own goals and a rich inner life, highlighting how different young women can be and how various friendship dynamics can manifest.

Try to do the same with your own secondary characters: give them their own personalities and theoretical storylines, even if they don’t show up much in your book. Who knows — you might end up with enough fodder for a sequel! (Though as we know from the movies, you shouldn’t write one unless you really have something interesting to say.)

Whether you like big-budget action films, quirky coming-of-age stories, or anything in between, I hope this post has inspired you to dissect your next Netflix pick for some great storytelling lessons. Happy watching!


Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.

Savannah Cordova
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My short story, published in INK

Yay! I am published again! This time I entered a short story competition. Maybe that should be a short short story competition because the rule was nothing longer than 300 words. 300 words isn’t a lot of space, it’s a constraint that I definitely struggled with, but I’m very happy with my resulting story and that it got picked to be one of the stories in the anthology.

The other constraints for the competition were that it had to be queer, since that’s Queer Scifi Ink’s whole jam, and that you had to reference Ink, or the idea of ink.

My short story is called Toby’s Tattoo, and it’s an idea that I’ve had messing around in my head for ages, never quite sure what format it should take. It might still become a novel, but I don’t know. It’s scifi, and in the ‘scifi part two’ part of the anthology. There were over 300 entries, and 120 selected for the anthology.

Grab INK from here, or there’s more links below for different stores.

To go into the draw to win an Amazon gift card as part of the INK blog tour, click here




Every year Queer Sci Fi holds a flash fiction contest that solicits stories from writers around the world, and publishes the best stories as an annual anthology.

Ink

INK (Noun)

Five definitions to inspire writers around the world and an unlimited number of possible stories to tell:

1) A colored fluid used for writing

2) The action of signing a deal

3) A black liquid ejected by squid

4) Publicity in the written media

5) A slang word for tattoos

Innovation features 300-word speculative flash fiction stories from across the rainbow spectrum, from the minds of the writers of Queer Sci Fi.


Places you can get Ink:

Amazon eBook

Amazon Paperback

Barnes & Noble

Apple Books

Kobo

Scribd

Thalia

Vivlio


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Writing Sprint Live Streams

A few weeks ago, local author and excellent friend Gillian St Kevern contacted me about trying something new. She asked if I’d like to be a co-host on her Youtube writing livestreams. I said yes after considering for maybe two (2) seconds.

Why did I agree so quickly? Well, I’ve been struggling a little lately with motivating myself to write, and this felt like the kick in the pants I might need to get my day’s word count up from 1000 words or so.

It turns out the peer pressure of knowing people are watching/listening to my typing sounds, and perhaps just the structure of someone telling me to sprint again, right now really works for me. We’ve been doing two hour sessions, often getting four sprints in each time along with some gentle chats and interaction with viewers in the comments.

At the moment we’re doing Saturday and Sundays 10am NZ time but in the next month or so we’re going to try and change it up, maybe add some evenings, midweek or try for two different streams in one day.

If you do anything creative and would like some motivation, I highly recommend you join us. You don’t have to comment, although we do like to talk to people – and there’s no pressure to stay through the whole session.

Plus you get to see me fussing with my hair, showing off Mochi and pulling weird expressions to match what I’m writing. Sound like fun? Come follow the channel here.

I might also start doing some more with my own Youtube channel as well, but that’s very much a work in progress, so I’ll let you know when/if that happens.

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Guest writers series: an interview with Rem Wigmore

Welcome to Rem Wigmore, a SpecFic NZ friend who has a brand new book on preorder…

Where in the world do you live, and what do you like most about it? 

I live in Wellington, Te Whanganui-a-Tara. My first novel, The Wind City, is a love-song to this city, and I still love it but in a more bitter kind of way; the shine’s worn off after living for several years in cold, damp houses. What I love is the wind, and that this harbour is a place where the ocean and the city and the forest all meet, nestled in hills.

Self-care is very important for writers, tell us how you look after yourself?

Less well than I should, but it’s a steady climb! My main effort is actually taking days off – yes, even from writing. Yes, even though I love it. This isn’t something everyone has the luxury of, but I do recommend it where possible. I’ve struggled with burnout and it’s no fun.

What genres do you like to read in? 

I’m a real gremlin for speculative fiction – fantasy’s my first love, but I also devour sci-fi and sometimes historical fiction. Romance in any of these genres is also wonderful. Sometimes I’ll read some contemporary Young Adult, especially about queer characters.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling! I was so happy the library had it. Lately I’ve been making something of a study of horror and especially Gothics – just before this I finally got around to reading Carmilla, which I could’ve sworn I did years ago. So I guess a lot of sapphic horror all in all!

Can you name some formative books for your own writing?

The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss was a massive influence on my sixteen-year-old self: it was that first eye-opening experience of, ‘oh we’re allowed to do this?’ and started me writing seriously. I figured if I could write something even a quarter as beautiful I’d be happy. I had a similar experience first reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and realising, hey, if this prominent cisgender author can write about nonbinary people and get published, I can too, and I have never looked back since! a more recent influence is Neon Yang’s Tensorate novellas – the first one I read was The Ascent to Godhood, I need to reread it now I’ve read all the others. That series is a masterclass in how much beautiful worldbuilding and narrative you can fit into a novella’s small space. (Rider’s probably my favourite character, I love Rider.)

Who’s an author you think more people should be reading? 

Rivers Solomon – faer work is a gut-punch in the best of ways.

Creative writing as a teenager, did you do it? What did you write about? Can you remember any stories? 

I did very little else! I wrote for fun since I was I thiiink twelve or thirteen or so, and have been doing National Novel Writing Month since I was about – fourteen? Since 2008, anyway. It’s not at all the only way to learn how to write, but it certainly taught me a lot (any teenagers reading this: don’t do what I did, please focus on your exams).

I always wrote pretty similar stuff – those first few manuscripts were mostly fantasy, with a big emphasis on action/adventure plotlines and Friendship. My work now just has more craft knowledge and less compulsory heterosexuality.

Is there anything you’ve seen passed around as writing advice that you really disagree with? 

‘Write every day’. Do that if it works for you, but you really don’t have to if it doesn’t. For me, I can’t imagine a better way to make myself hate writing. You definitely have to be able to make yourself work and focus even when you don’t want to, but – listen, sometimes after ten hours on my feet at work I’d come home at eleven or midnight and would be able to write a bit, but I’m not going to hold it against myself the days I couldn’t. Sometimes you need the rest.

Do you prefer quiet, ambient sound or music while you write? 

Music! I have a lot of playlists for specific projects, and listening to them can really help me get back in the mood of the story and world when I come back for editing. It is about the vibes.

If you were stuck on a desert island with one book, one music album and one podcast, what would they be? 

Oh, man. I’m gonna cheat and say The House of Always by Jenn Lyons because I haven’t got my hands on it yet. (It is honestly so refreshing to read an enthralling epic fantasy series stacked full of bisexual disasters like myself.) For music, let’s say Janelle Monae’s incredible album Dirty Computer because I’m constantly coming back to it, and for podcast, The Adventure Zone because I have like, two seasons to catch up on. I don’t think it’s feasible for me to be stranded on a desert island long enough to catch up with Critical Role.

Pokemon: if you were a trainer, what pokemon would be in your team? (you get 6) 

This is the hardest question in the world. Why would you do this. I can never even decide if I’d be a Poison, Fairy or Flying type trainer. Anyway, scolipede, pidgeot, ribombee, flygon, feraligatr and I’m definitely missing at least ten faves I’m forgetting about but let’s say roserade. I like to pretend I’d be a Pokemon Ranger in the Pokemon world, despite the fact I’d probably just be, y’know, me, and maybe live in an idyllic cottage with my smeargle or something.

I was reading back over this and realised I forgot trubbish. And murkrow. This is why I always have about twenty active Pokemon in my teams and take forever to beat the game. And skorupi! Heck!

Okay, okay, all-poison team variant: scolipede (my favourite pokemon, solid arthropleura vibes) dragalge, toxapex, trubbish, roserade and salazzle. You may think I’ve now been talking about Pokemon for an inaccessibly long time, but praise my restraint, because this is still leaving out dustox and gengar and and and …

Favourite bird? 

You’d think crow, and you’d be right, but also I’m a real armchair biologist and birds are my Favourite and have been since I was a small, so here’s my TOP FIVE at this particular moment:

·         Crow friends – clever, pretty, morbid, absolutely the bird in my heart is a crow, 10/10

·         Kea for extremely similar reasons, beautiful mischief parrots

·         Kākā, because they get a bad rap and I like their Spirit

·         Moa. Extinct big sexy.

·         Tūī!! Two voice boxes, plus they come off all beautiful and graceful until you watch them closer, realise they’re fluffed-up little bullies and love them even more.


Rem Wigmore is a speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa. Their novel Foxhunt is forthcoming from Queen of Swords Press on August 21st 2021 and is up for preorder now. Their other works include Riverwitch and The Wind City, both shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award. Rem’s short fiction appears in several places including the Capricious Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue, Baffling Magazine, and the second Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology. They also have a story in Victoria University Press’s upcoming Middle Distance anthology. Rem’s probably a changeling, but you’re stuck with them now. The coffee here is just too good. Rem can be found on Twitter.

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