Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing tips from Pixar


I'm an IMDB junkie. It's a great way to learn more about a movie- or simply figure out who that person is because you KNOW you've seen her in some other show. Anyway, they also had a link to this LA Times article that dissected the opening scene of UP.

I noticed that so much of what makes a good scene in a movie makes a good scene in a book. Here's what stood out to me:

Sometimes backstory is necessary. If UP had started with Carl floating away, the viewers wouldn't have cared as much. Why the balloons? Why then? The opening scene gives the entire movie an emotional center it wouldn't have otherwise.

Backstory needs specific action. The moments of Carl and Ellie's life in the montage were based on incidents the animators took from their own lives- and even the lives of strangers. The Pixar animators actually bought home videos and watched films posted on the internet.

Incomplete information can pull readers/viewers in. I'd forgotten, but that whole scene was silent, like other Super-8 films. At first, the animators weren't sure if they could get enough information in without dialog. But by pushing themselves, they were able to incorporate all the story that they needed to. Pete Doctor says it best:

"[...] there's something asked of you as the viewer or listener - you're actively engaged by creating this missing element, so it comes to life in your own head."

So go read the article! I'd love to know what you think. What stood out to you? What could you apply to your writing?

I have another question! Tess just commented that it would difficult to have a good, dialog-less scene in a novel. It got me thinking. Does anyone remember reading a great scene in a novel that didn't include dialog?

16 comments:

Tess said...

I am intrigued by the concept that a non dialogue scene can actually be stronger than the converse. I think it is difficult to achieve, as many readers skim those passages in a novel, but a worthy goal.

Sarah said...

I'm not sure whether you could pull it off in a book, Tess, but what did stand out to me was that the animators didn't feel that the viewers needed everything in that scene. They thought the scene was stronger for the lack of it.

In a novel, we might be withholding something else. But I do wonder if we could pull off a powerful scene without dialog?

Does anyone remember having read such a scene?

Tess said...

I think it happens all the time in novels. I'm trying to come up with a specific example but all I can think of are general ideas ... like when evidence is revealed in a mystery or a touching moment between friends/lovers happens with something as simple as a touch on the hand. It's something that interests me. Yes, it would be a challenge to do right but could be a poignant part of your work. hmmm...

Sarah said...

I agree, Tess. I can't think of anything specific, but I feel like it has been done well.

It makes me want to play with some of what I'm working on right now...

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

In Harper Lee's novel "To kill a Mockingbird," the author begins with exposition and back story. In drama this works, but in suspense and mystery not so much. Most suspense and mystery readers want to be pulled in immediately, sort of a thrill ride. I think the way a story begins depends on the book and the genre. The same probably applies to movies as well, IMHO.

Sarah said...

I agree that it depends on what you're trying to achieve, Andrea. However, I think well-placed backstory could increase tension or give action meaning in the middle of an adventure as well.

Danyelle said...

This is a great article, thank you for sharing. I loved the emotional punch that part in UP had--especially because it was all done without words. Amazing. :)

Sarah said...

So glad you liked it Danyelle! I loved hearing the animator's perspective on the whole process.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

I agree Sarah, in the 'middle' of an adventure sure, but not in the beginning, IMHO.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I liked how the writers here pulled backstory from their own lives. that's interesting!

Sarah said...

I loved how the animators were determined that the scene feel real and personal, Terry. But then, I just love Pixar. They tell great stories.

Kristi Tuck Austin said...

Sarah, the first dialogue-less scene that comes to mind is the chapter "Time Passes" in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. There is no dialogue. The chapter follows the deterioration of the family cottage, and the major events in the life of the family are relegated to simple sentences in brackets. I think her technique makes the statements more powerful. I felt a physical jolt when I read, "[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]"
I love how Woolf used the recurring image of a shawl Mrs. Ramsay wound around a skull that bothered her young child. As the shawl loosened, the family broke apart. When I read it, I thought it was stunning.

Shelley Sly said...

Great post! Gives me a lot to think about concerning backstory. Thanks!

Sarah said...

Wow, Kristi, those are some amazing examples. Thanks for sharing.

KM said...

Very cool post. "Finding Nemo" had some important backstory, too. And the non dialogue thing is great.

Sarah said...

KM, you're so right about Nemo! I remember watching the commentary to Nemo and marveling at the way the animators crafted the story.