For writers: 5 things to learn about story from Jurassic World

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Dinosaurs and boys go together like peas and carrots. So since I’m the proud mama of three boys, you better believe I was sitting in the theater this past weekend watching Jurassic World with them.

The movie did not disappoint.

The dinosaurs were bigger.

The dinosaurs were scarier.

And somehow, the lead heroine manages to fend them all off while wearing high-heeled shoes and a white skirt. These minor details bugged the heck outta me, but I digress.

The story was great!

I was glued to my seat.

My knuckles were white as I gripped the armrest.

I didn’t even get up to refill the popcorn, and I always get up to refill the popcorn.

So what was so good about it?

As a writer, and as one who is in the middle of macro edits for my third novel, I watched out for story techniques as much as for the Indominous Rex and Chris Pratt’s biceps, and there were plenty of good ones.

I’ll highlight five that I think will benefit writers:

1) What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to your protagonist? Do that to them. Again. And again. And again.

Every scene in Jurassic World upped the ante of the next one. Every scene put the characters in more dire straits than previously imaginable. Every scene made it seem more and more impossible that the story could ever end well. And that–if not the I-Rex and Chris Pratt’s biceps–is what kept me glued to my seat.

The same is true with novel-writing.

Keep the protagonist moving.

Keep the obstacles coming.

Keep the reader wondering how the story could ever end well.

2) Add humor, or at least a few lighter moments to help people care and become invested in the story.

Jurassic World is one action-packed movie: danger, teeth, blood, gore, and more teeth and danger. Even so, there are moments where the characters make the audience laugh. There are moments when the mood is lightened. (Extra points if you can spot Jimmy Buffett’s cameo!).

As a writer who tends to geek out on literary novels, my editors are kind to remind me not to make my writing so dark that they want to put the book down and see a therapist. While inserting slap-stick comedy into a contemporary family drama would never work, there is a time and place to lighten the mood to make a story more well-rounded. Doing so helps develop characters who are not simply running from big-toothed dinosaurs, but people we begin can care about and relate to.

In essence, this technique helps make the characters more well-rounded. Because nobody likes a flat character very much.

3) Follow the basic rules of story.

In his invaluable book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee says,

“‘Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent…[but] Just as a composer must excel in the principles of musical composition, so you must master the corresponding principles of story composition.”

Jurrassic World features solid principles of structure (plot) and setting (a fabulous island far, far away), genre (thriller/action/adventure), character (heroes, villains and big, scary dinosaurs) and meaning (“the best intentions can be deadly in the wrong hands;” or perhaps, “just because we as humans can, doesn’t mean we should.”). There’s a definite protagonist and antagonist. There’s crisis, climax and resolution.

The reason Jurassic World (and the Jurassic Parks before it) are so beloved (did I mention dinosaurs and Chris Pratt’s eyes?) is because they touch on the universal desire within each of us to create something remarkable and/or to bring back what was lost, and the universal fear within each of us that the remarkable will fall apart and/or we will lose it again.

4) Write about something really cool.

I heard someone say that when you’re writing, write as if it’s the last thing you’ll ever be able to share with the world. I think when a writer does that, they create something extraordinary, even if the subject matter seems to be…well…extinct.

Dinosaurs certainly aren’t new, but Jurassic World tells a story about them in a new way.

I’ve written about pecan farms, the art of lapidary, Eastern European history, the 1970s, Alabama, Lake Michigan, and the current novel I’m writing centers around a dairy farm and a small town church. None of these topics are new, but I have a lot of fun researching them, and I think my stories unveil unique aspects about each of them…and I think that makes for a really cool story.

Identify your story topic, and keep asking, “What if….?” I guarantee Michael Crichton and Steven Spielburg did this in one form or another when creating their little dinosaur stories. Over, and over, and over again.

Besides that, when you write about something you’re fired up about, that excitement is bound to rub off on the reader.

5) Put Chris Pratt in your book.

Okay, so maybe you can’t afford him. But, Chris Pratt as Owen in Jurassic World can tell a writer a lot about character. He’s likable, he’s charming, he’s brave, he’s funny, he has great biceps, and as one character puts it, “he’s a bad a$$.”

Readers want protagonists they can root for. They want someone who’s well-rounded (see point #2). They want someone to sympathize with, empathize with, and cheer on.

Owen isn’t perfect–he’s a bit of a hermit and he’s bossy–but those negative traits help us like him too, because they make him believable. And if he weren’t believable, the storyline of him being able to tame velociraptors would completely flop.

In short, a character like Chris Pratt’s is real. Which helps make the story real. Which makes it get into a reader’s head, under their skin, and into their hearts.

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What about you?

Have you seen Jurassic World?

What’s another movie you can think of which uses great storytelling principles to tell a great story?

 

What inspires your writing?

I’ve been thinking about this question as I begin my fourth novel.

Usually when folks ask me this question, I tell them nature. In many ways, the biology, geology, geography and weather of a place is like another main character, such as the pecan farms and salty bayside breezes of southwest Alabama in How Sweet the Sound; blustery winter in Ukraine and the sunswept Michigan lakeshore in Then Sings My Soul. I tend to imagine myself living in the places we travel to, soaking in the local flavor and scents, terrain and sounds, and I can’t help but share all that in my stories.

   
    
As I begin outlining and jotting down characters for my fourth novel, however, I’ve realized another huge inspiration for me:

Books.

Lots and lots and lots of books.

Nonfiction books about settng and time periods.

Fiction books in and out of the genre I’m considering.

Other books completely unrelated to what I’m writing about.

Stacks of books sit on my nightstand. The dining room table sags with the weight of a giant collection of books fresh from the library. Books pile on the floor and on my desk, in the bathroom and in the kitchen.

Even the dogs can be caught reading…or trying to chew on…books.

  

Someone once said there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. And indeed, not only do I read because I love to, I read to study plot, to absorb the way a character is developed, to dissect detail and style, rules other authors follow and rules they break.

The more I read, the more I fill my writing tank, so to speak. Soon, brand new characters start revealing themselves in my mind, and (at the risk of someone thinking I ought to be committed) they begin to speak.

Stephen King refers to this phenomenon as a muse, or, “the boys in the basement:”

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

I completely agree with Mr. King.

The basement guys are hungry.

Starving.

A library is to the muse what Costco is to my teenage boys.

*****  *****

What about you? If you’re a writer, how do books play in to your writing process?


How do you feed your basement boys?

Show me your nightstand and I’ll show you mine.

Since I just submitted the manuscript for my third novel, yet another season of binge reading has begun. Books on writing, books out of my genre, books in my genre, books resembling the ideas bumping around in my head for my fourth novel. Books my kids want me to read. Books recommended by others. Books long beside my bed collecting dust.

I’m really enjoying Ann Patchett’s book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The title is deceiving–it’s really a collection of her essays, many of which involve her thoughts on the craft of writing. Here’s a section that resonated with me:

“Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. It I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink. As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written since. I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea. I made a pledge with myself that I wouldn’t start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present. Keeping that pledge has always served me well. The part of my brain that makes art and the part that judges that art had to be separated…”

Here’s a picture of my stack of reading. Throw in a box of Keebler Coconut Dreams, and it’s quite a binge-fest.

  

And here’s my audio book line-up (for whenever I can tear myself away from Maroon 5): 

  

Oops. 

I don’t know where he came from.

  

What about you? 

What are you reading these days? 

Have you read any of the ones in my stack?