10 storytelling tips I learnt from the movies – Mark Lamprell

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By Mark Lamprell

Having navigated the transition from writing movies to writing novels (and I am guiltlessly able to employ the plural here because I have published two whole novels), I’m keenly aware that screenwriting is often regarded as the literary poor cousin of novel writing. This may well be the case but there’s a lot to be learned from poor cousins.♥

Admittedly, these may not be the rarefied insights one might gain from reading James Joyce, for example, but here are some storytelling tips gleaned from a lifetime of watching movies.

The first comes from The Sound of Music, the first movie I ever saw. I can still remember arriving in my creaking red velvet seat deeply resentful that my mother had dragged me away from my playmates to go and see something called a fillum. I was also deeply resentful about this stupid mustard-coloured bowtie that she made me wear. But then the curtains opened and the wall in front of me turned into a beautiful picture of the Austrian Alps and Julie Andrews came bounding over that hill. Well, I never. And there were Nazis! And poor orphaned children! And songs!

If Julie Andrews had been able to look out into her audience on that particular matinee, she would have seen a little boy in a mustard bow tie, his mouth agape in awe and wonder. Apparently I didn’t speak for days. But this is what I learned:

1. If you want people to feel sorry for your characters, kill their mother.
2. Always try to throw in a love story.
3. Being hunted by ideologically evil men is utterly compelling.

My next storytelling tip came from The Shining. I was driving to a remote beach house on the south coast of Australia when I decided to stop off and catch a film in the kind country town where people had no qualms about clutching the stranger next to them in scary movies, shouting “Oh my God! We’re gonna die!” When Jack Nicholson put the axe through the door and ‘redrum’ turned into ‘murder’, a crowded cinema rose as one, screaming their heads off. After, I proceeded to my remote beach house where I spent the night alone, listening to the pounding waves, clutching a butcher’s knife, waiting for Jack Nicholson to break down the door and chop me into little pieces. Fortunately, I am still here to report, he did not. However, here’s what I learned.

4. In stories, 10 per cent is about what happens on screen (or on the page) and 90 per cent is about what happens in mind of the audience (or the reader).

9781760293680I didn’t see Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc until some years after its release, but I will never forget laughing in such an uncomplicated way at the improbable antics of Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand. I was transported back to all those 1930s screwball comedies I’d watched on telly during my misspent youth. And here’s the thing I learned about great comedies:

5. They can be sarcastic, or acerbic, but they are never mean or mean-spirited.
6. They celebrate silliness. 7. They substitute the expected with the unexpected.
8. They keep the air in the soufflé, allowing moments for audiences (or readers) to process the ridiculous or absurd, creating space and permission to laugh.

I remember sitting in the cinema, watching Pulp Fiction, thinking “this guy has really thrown all the story-telling cards into the air”. But he didn’t, of course; he rearranged them in a clever and innovative way. Just when I thought I had discovered everything there was to be discovered about structure, hero journeys and characters’ arcs, Quentin Tarantino shifted my certainty, fashioning a compelling story into a bold new shape. Here’s what I learned:

9. Rules are useful but they’re not dogma. If you want to create something that rides the edge of the zeitgeist, you need to throw everything out and start again, (remaining mindful of what has gone before).

Never have I seen lesson 9 so superbly applied than in the making of Mad Max Fury Road. I don’t remember being conscious of a single thing other than what was happening on screen. I remember sitting down. I remember getting up after it was over. I was a little boy in a mustard bow-tie, unable to peel his eyes from the unfolding story. And boy was it unfolding fast and furiously. These storytellers were taking me to a place I had never been before. This wasn’t just a movie. It was a ride and a game as well. Cinema itself was shifting. Here’s what I learned:

10. Like a great glacier carving its way to the sea, the shape of storytelling is constantly changing. It may appear to be glorious and immutable but it is not. Storytellers who are not mindful of the movement in the glacier will be inexorably mown down by it.

And under the glacier, no one can hear you scream.

Mark Lamprell works in film and television. He co-wrote the film Babe: Pig in the City and wrote and directed the award-winning feature My Mother Frank. His first novel, The Full Ridiculous, was published in 2013. His latest novel, The Lovers’ Guide to Rome, is out now.


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