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Books to Film: Lessons in Dramatic Structure

When working on a draft of a novel, I always find some sections that feel mushy, ones in which there needs to be more forward movement, a tighter structure. That’s when I ask myself WWHD? Or, What Would Hollywood Do? Well, not Hollywood exactly; I’m not a car-chase kinda writer. But I ask myself, What would a screenwriter do? I imagine some no-nonsense screenwriter taking his or her red pen to my novel: Cut this. Combine these 2 characters. Build in some urgency. Condense the time. What are the stakes? Make them higher! Is the protagonist active? Does he/she change? Is the climax in the hands of the protagonist?

Of course, in the early drafts, before I'm working with an actual editor, I’m the one who has to come up with the specific ideas of how to rewrite. But in some perverse way it’s easier for me to do if I make an appeal to this ruthless, fictional screenwriter who's schooled in dramatic structure.

One fun exercise is to read a book, then watch the film made from the book and analyze the differences. What did the screenplay change? Recently, I saw the film of War Horse. Though the film adheres closely to the book, I was interested to note some changes. Here are two I found instructive:

• In the book, there are some vague allusions to the fact that the father needs to make more money to support his family. The film, however, heightens the threat by making it much more immediate – the family may lose their house! The film added a new character, the landlord, who personifies the threat. He visits the house and tells the family he’s going to throw them out if they can’t pay the rent by a specific day. Thus, the screenplay ups the stakes so that what's at stake is now specific and concrete – the house. It also introduces urgency by confining the time. Pay the rent by this specific day – or else!

• The film also heightens the very moving scene near the end of the long, grueling war in which two soldiers from opposite trenches climb out to free Joey, the horse. The scene in the book is already quite cinematic, with Joey running wildly through the no-man’s land between the trenches. But the movie takes the scene a step further: Joey is now tangled in barbed wire, so the soldiers have to work together to cut him out. This gives the soldiers a specific task to accomplish, and illustrates another writing principle: give your characters something active to do, always a much better strategy than having them stand around discussing an abstract goal. The scene was made that much more poignant, and the result? I was profoundly moved; the tears flowed freely. Read More 

Le Petit Nicolas: a How-To for Child's POV

Last summer when visiting Montreal, I stayed in an apartment rented by a young man who’s a native of the city, and the shelves were stocked with books from his own library. I tried to tackle one by Mordecai Richler (When in Montreal…), but was having trouble with the French. Then I noticed some children’s books from the series Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempé and René Goscinny. On the inside covers, in careful grade-school script, my host had inscribed his name and the name of his elementary school. I was immediately charmed!

The books are early chapter books, perfect for my level of language study. Introduced in 1959, they’re collections of stories narrated by a schoolboy, the eponymous Nicolas, who’s a hoot, irrepressible. As I writer, I’m so impressed with the spot-on rendering of the child’s point of view. The first person narration never strays from a schoolboy’s vantage; run-on sentences mirror a child’s runaway thoughts and speech patterns, and Nicolas’s logic is drolly young and quirky. Before I left Montreal, I bought myself a stack of Le Petit Nicolas titles. Now, every night before I go to sleep, I read one of the stories.

Some of the vocabulary I've picked up from Nicolas: le terrain vague (the vacant lot where they play les cow-boys), le chouchou de la maîtresse (teacher's pet), un coup de poing sur le nez (a punch in the nose, what they would like to do to the teacher's pet, but he's wearing des lunettes). Even when I re-read these stories, I’m all smiles. Read More 

The Uses of Enchantment: Rich Language in Children's Literature

When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of books, though my mother regularly trundled us off to the library to pick out the week’s reading. Of the few books I did own, one was a beautifully illustrated volume of fairy tales entitled The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, published by Little, Brown, and named for its illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren. Tenggren is the illustrator of The Poky Little Puppy and other enduring/endearing Little Golden titles.

Somehow, over the years, my childhood copy got lost and, to boot, the book went out of print. When I tried to find another copy (this was before the Internet!), I registered with a few book-search companies, but years went by and no copy turned up. Then one day, I was browsing in the Strand Book Store, and there it was. A used copy in excellent condition. And for the “Strand Price” of only $5! It was like finding a long-lost friend.

First published in 1942, “with text edited and adapted by Katharine Gibson,” the book is gorgeously written. A doff of my hat to Ms. Gibson, whose prose still keeps me spellbound. Consider this passage from Cinderella, after the king announces the ball.

What a rustle and bustle! The milliner was soon all out of feathers. Not a spool of ribbon was left in the village. Only cotton and calico remained on the shelves in the shops. Every inch of silk, satin, broadcloth, and gold braid was sold the first day. Dressmakers and tailors stitched and sewed until their needles pushed through their thimbles. Makers of fine boots and slippers never slept at all. Hairdressers curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked with their long bright scissors day and night.

What a passage! Note the embedded rhyme of “rustle and bustle,” and the playful alliteration of “cotton and calico,” “shelves in the shops,” and “stitched and sewed.” And how about those vivid verbs? – “curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked.” No wonder I’d loved the book! I feel so lucky that, as a child, I was regularly exposed to such artfully-crafted prose.

For me, finding the book was a reminder: children’s books, especially those that are read aloud, can – and should! – expose young readers to heightened language and rich vocabulary. When this lush language washed over me, I was inspired. Inspired to keep reading, and eventually to become a writer myself. Read More