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Sorry for the lack of content over the past six months or so. I’ve been both very busy with my day job AND very uninspired in my writing. But all of that is changing. Here’s my second post of 2014:

IMDb Logo

I recently discovered that IMDb, the Internet Movie DataBase, has an incredible collection of keywords tagging the movies in their database.

How can a writer use this?

  • To predict the popularity of what they are writing.
  • To choose between potential plot points.
  • and most certainly many more…

Visit: http://www.imdb.com/Sections/Keywords/ for the MoKA home page. If you scroll down, there are lists of all the keywords broken down by starting letter, keyword length (!), and tag count.

I think the list of keywords tagged on 10,000 or more movies is quite revealing:

  • Death (11,357)
  • Family Relationships (10,721)
  • Father Son Relationship (12,334)
  • Female Nudity (14,770)
  • Husband Wife Relationship (10,371)
  • Love (13,509)
  • Murder (20,994)
  • Sex (13,022)

So there we have it. There have been more movies about Murder and Death, Family Relationships, and Love and Sex than on any other topics.

So should we all be writing murder-death-kill thrillers about families involved in complicated love quadrangles featuring kinky sex scenes?

Of course not.

Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you would enjoy reading. This is only one measure of success. But a writer should always use multiple metrics because past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Charles Goodhart put it another way: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. 

So we must use IMDb’s MoKA appropriately. It is interesting information, but it is an indicator, a measure, a metric, and not your writing goal. It is a tool best used to hone existing material. If used prescriptively when creating material, you will have relied on it too much and the quality and direction of your writing will likely suffer.


Note: I removed the following non-plot keywords from the list above:

  • Based On Novel (29,833)
  • Based On Play (13,908)
  • Character Name In Title (42,430)
  • Independent Film (35,628)
  • Number In Title (13,716)
  • TV Mini-Series (10,145)

Albert Einstein on Intelligence

2013 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 100,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Time is precious to me. I don’t like it when other people recommend something that causes me to waste my time. That’s one reason why I don’t post regularly or recommend many things on this blog but this video is exceptional. It is utterly incredible. It’s 46 minutes long, but if you want to write psychologically rich characters, then it is absolutely worth every second of your time. You might even have to watch it a second time (like me).

Warren-Buffett

Source: What can we learn from the science of high performance? via Farnam Street

An amazing list composed of only 5 items:

  1. Routines

In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister contends that the most successful people don’t make better decisions because of their willpower. Rather, they develop routines.

These routines reduce the number of decisions we need to make (as well as reducing stress). Thus it becomes easier to use your limited resources of self-control to avoid, rather than solve, crises.

  1. Focus

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. – Herbert Simon

  1. Practice

If we want to perform better beyond some basic competence researchers say we must engage in deliberate practice. These are designed, mindful efforts, to master even the smallest detail of success. To get better you have to get out of the autonomous stage.

  1. Exercise

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks.

  1. Rest

Taking time to rest won’t make you a slacker. While the corporate culture of “back-to-back” meetings from 9-5 may seem “cool” it is actually crazy. Rest is a critical component of creating and sustaining excellence.

Read the whole article. I’ve perused a lot of self-help lists aimed at making people more productive. This is clearly the best I’ve found and each of the items (excluding #5) is backed by research into what makes people productive.

Elmore Leonard

  1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’sSweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
  5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

potter-twilight

Popular books and video games, especially franchises, are commonly adapted into movie versions. Books include Harry Potter, Twilight, and the new Jack Reacher film. Video games include Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. There are many, many more.

Sometimes the movies are considered good but more often the adaptations are not as popular as the book or game the movie is based on. Here’s why:

In the movie-making industry, there is a general belief that movies are the highest form of art. This belief is rarely stated out loud but many surely hold this view and that’s where I believe most movie adaptations fall flat.

Because this is no longer true. It probably was once, but this is no longer the case.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When consumers are given a choice of mediums only one will be considered canon.  

Video games that provide the player with only 10 or 20 hours of entertainment are considered short. Role-playing games (RPGs) are expected to contain 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Other genres vary, but all contain enough content for many hours of entertainment. In comparison, most movies come in at a paltry 2 hours of running time and thus simply can’t compete with other forms of a given story for dominance. 

One of the reason popular books and movies get adapted in the first place is that they have a built-in fanbase. The fans become the first set of movie-goers but they always expect to see their beloved story dramatized on the big screen. In the case of video games, which are already in a visual format, there is simply so much more content, so much more depth, that any movie will always feel small or rushed in comparison. Additionally in the case of books, the reader’s imagination is employed to visualize the story which is inherently personal and subjective. More often than not, the high expectations of the fanbase (which grew up around the original format for the story) are not met and sometimes they are virtually dashed to pieces.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, the highest form of art is a preference chosen by the consumer. Thus fans of the franchise, having spent much more time with the original version, of any given material will, when faced with the choice of two competing interpretations of the same story, usually choose the original.

Lastly, while books are almost always linear (the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a notable exception), video games excel at creating custom stories tailored to the choices of the player which usually result in very non-linear stories. Movies are purely linear (with notable exceptions like Clue (1985) which included 3 different endings). Thus movies simply can’t compete with the detailed, multi-dimensionally-rich stories available to players of a video game.

Avoiding these traps is simple. Make sure your movie isn’t trying to compete with the source material for dominance. Shape this dynamic as a both-and scenario rather than letting it devolve into an either-or competition. This means the screenplay must either tell the exact same story (exactly matching the source material or be very, very close) or tell a side story (something that can stand alone but adds to the mythos or the world of the franchise but is not required knowledge for engagement with the source material). Fans are usually not lenient of excessive creative license. And since a movie rises or falls based on the perceptions of its fanbase, it’s first viewers, it’s best to keep them happy. If they don’t like a movie, they will tell their friends to stay home.

Let’s apply this dynamic to two well-known franchises: Harry Potter and Twilight.

Which Harry Potter Movies get this Right?

The 1st through 4th Harry Potter movies get this dynamic right along with 7A. Watching these movies is essentially reading the books although book 4 is notable for being so long that a lot of details had to be left out and the plot simplified.

Movie 7B gets this dynamic wrong. Book 7 ends quite differently with all the loose ends nicely tied up. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make changes to Rowling’s great ending in an attempt to give us something different when what the fans wanted to see was the book’s ending. My viewing of 7B was … disappointing.

By the way, Harry Potter 5 is a special case (and the primary exception to this dynamic) in that the source material wasn’t conducive to the big screen. Book 5 contains a lot of introspection by Harry which is difficult to visualize so the movie strays a lot from the book. The beginning and ending are essentially the same but everything in between had to be completely restructured to be suitable for a movie. (This movie also breaks continuity when the walls to the Room of Requirement are destroyed, an event that does not happen in the books and is depicted as being impossible. That room remaining intact is required for book 7’s plot so lots of problems here.)

Harry Potter 6 was, in my opinion, another exception to this dynamic. I think the movie was an improvement over the book version which I felt wandered a bit. In the movie version of book 6, the sides and stakes are made much clearer than in the book.

Which Twilight Movies get this Right?

Twilight 1 is like Harry Potter 6. The existing content from the book was restructured to make a stronger story. Except for a few scenes in the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I prefer the movie version.

Twilight movies 2, 3, and 4A get the dynamic right. They essentially provide fans the movie versions of the same stories from the books without much creative license.

Twilight movie 4B, however, pulls a fast one. The movie breaks continuity by putting us into the mind of the villain as he watches the future unfold from touching Alice. This is a neat visual trick but like Harry Potter 7B it is played for the shock value of offering something different. The chapters in the book corresponding to the final battle are highly introspective on the part of Bella (like Harry Potter 5) making this perhaps the best choice. I think they get away with it even though it breaks continuity regarding Alice’s gift.

Conclusion

Screenwriters, Directors, and Producers: Meet the expectations of the fans by telling them the story they already love, the story that was strong enough to convince you to make the movie in the first place. If this isn’t possible, craft a completely new story to supplement the source material. The fans will love you for expanding the story universe and your movie will be popular because it will be the only place they can get this new content.

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