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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)

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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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Source: Joel Stein, the World’s Best Self-Promoter, on How To Be The World’s Best Self-Promoter

I wrote to just about everyone I knew who had more than 1,000 followers and asked them to tweet about my book, providing four somewhat clever pre-written tweets.

To my shock, people I barely knew or met once did it.

Also, about 90 percent of them used the pre-written tweets. The main barrier, it seemed, wasn’t annoying their followers, as much as the energy to come up with something reasonably clever.

– Joel Stein, author of Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity

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Book trailers don’t work as expected. Many authors are stumped by them. Here are four reasons why you should create them and why they do actually work.

Dwight K. Shrute from NBC's The Office. Played by Rainn Wilson.

The crucial difference between traditional marketing and marketing on the web is that everything on the web is equally available to everyone all the time. Unlike traditional media outlets like TV and Radio, there are no gatekeepers controlling the flow. There are no channel line ups and no show schedules.

In traditional media, advertisements are based on interruption marketing. They can be low-quality and still be effective because consumers can’t skip the advertisement to get to the content they want.

Not so on the web. It’s incredibly easy to navigate to the content you want. Therefore, there is no traditional marketing because it isn’t necessary (and can actually be a liability). Consumers can connect directly with the producers of the content that they want. This has several important consequences:

(1) The production value of a book trailer ought to be high. Low-quality might work on TV but it won’t work on the web. It’s still entirely possible that it will get lost in the shuffle of all that is new on the web. Humans are fickle and hard to predict, but they do generally flock to whatever is *new* or anything that does something *better* than the competition. So keep the production value high and show them something they’ve never seen before. (n.b. High *value* doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or high-quality. American teens regularly buy jeans with holes already in them. Why? Because it’s considered fashionable. The jeans makers now purposefully damage their product before shipping. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. The web can be counter-intuitive like that too.)

(2) The primary purpose of your book trailer should not be to advertise your book. (!) If they’re watching it, they’re already interested. Remember, anyone can watch anything. They’ve chosen your book trailer. So, first and foremost, make it *entertaining* to keep them watching and increase the odds that they will share it with their friends (more on that next).

(3) Leverage the power of social media. Make it easy to find your book trailer and easy to share it. Use YouTube, Vimeo, and all the rest. Your first viewers will most likely be your fans who will probably be buying your book anyway. However, give them the tools and they will share it with their friends who might not be fans (yet). Making it easy also means you don’t pick just one outlet. You can upload your book trailer to them all and you should.

Thus, although you end up spending a lot of time creating something that will be viewed mostly by people already interested in it, you gain exposure for your product and your brand. Because…

(4) Things published on the web live on forever. Thus, it’s entirely possible to get continual exposure for the rest of your career. In other words, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Book trailers work over the long run. So, by all means create them. Just don’t expect an immediate payoff.

Image Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielle_scott/4022604355/

This post was written as a response to Nancy J. Cohen’s article on The Kill Zone, Making a Book Trailer. Watch Nancy’s book trailer for SILVER SERENADE on YouTube.

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Source: Your Brain on Stories | Neuromarketing.

Fabulous insight. The article is about writing stories for advertisements, but the concepts apply even more directly to writing any kind of fiction. This article is definitely worth a read.

That these stories resonated with readers for so long is very telling. In The Narrative in the Neurons, Wray Herbert describes another timeless piece of text, the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, a Hardy Boys novel first published in 1927:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.

“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.

“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.

When subjects read this passage and several others in an fMRI machine, researchers were able to observe which parts of their brain were activated as the subjects read different elements. Depending on what was happening in each sentence, quite different brain activation patterns were observed:

For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

Wray notes,

Readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

I think the take-away for authors is clear. Write stories as if they are movies, but more than that, write stories as if readers will live out the events they read about – because they will. And if they do not live the lives of our characters, then they have not connected with our books in a meaningful, lasting way.

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Source: What Do Teens Want? – 10/26/2009 – Publishers Weekly.

Fascinating. If you can read statistics without setting your head on fire, then by all means read through the source article. It is jam-packed with statistics, but there are a number of surprises inside like this one:

Not surprisingly, 83% of teens are influenced by their friends’ book recommendations. What did surprise us is that 52% were influenced by family members (perhaps their siblings), ahead of teachers (47%) and librarians (36%).

I really must read through this information again after my brain has had a chance to cool down.

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

The storyline is a single sentence that summarizes your story.  If you write a great storyline, your editor will instantly get what you story’s about.  She’ll be able to explain that storyline to the publishing committee and they’ll get it too. Ditto with the sales team, the buyers for the bookstore chains, the staff in bookstores, and ultimately the readers.

I devote a lot of space in my book to teaching exactly how to write a strong storyline that instantly communcates the gist of the story.  You want it less than 25 words and you want to focus on one or two characters.  And you want to elimiate absolutely every ounce of excess weight.

The storyline for my first novel TRANSGRESSION is only 11 words.

“A physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”

You either like that concept or you don’t. It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that I can communicate my storyline to you in 5 seconds whether you like it or not.  A great storyline separates the sheep from the goats–the potential buyers from the nay-sayers.

The book Randy is referring to is Writing Fiction For Dummies which will be releasing December 2, 2009.

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