Friday, June 29, 2012

From Book to Screen: The Hunger Games

by Bill Johnson
This well-made film offers a great example of how to turn a popular novel into a movie. The film eliminates several minor characters and shortens something that preoccupies Katniss in the novel, whether she'll go along with playing someone's girlfriend to score points with the audience for the Hunger Games. A common mistake for novelists writing a first script would be to take a scene of Katniss looking out a train window and adding that she was 'pondering if she could pretend to love Peeta.' This isn't something that shows up on the screen, so it normally would not appear in a script. (As with any convention, there can be reasons to violate the 'rules'.)

Katniss' relationships with her mother, younger sister, and her younger sister's cat are also conveyed quickly. In the novel, the cat serves as someone Katniss can speak to in a way that conveys information to the reader and as a comic device. In the movie, the cat is just noted briefly as another mouth to feed.

Another common problem in first scripts is the photographic detail that goes into describing environments, whether they are important or not. The absolute poverty in District 12 is conveyed in some quick shots in the movie, while conveying that poverty occupies a number of pages in the novel. The moment Katniss steps into the train transporting her to the capitol, a great deal is conveyed about the difference between life in District 12 and life in the capitol. This is what is meant by showing versus telling.

A film that demonstrates what happens when detail takes precedence of story is the first Harry Potter movie. The novel is a chronicle of narrative tension. The movie is a chronicle of what Hogwarts looks like.
A common mistake for novelists writing a first script would be to take a scene of Katniss looking out a train window and adding that she was 'pondering if she could pretend to love Peeta.' But this isn't something that shows up on the screen, so it normally would not appear in a script. (As with any convention, there can be reasons to violate any particular rule.)

Years ago I stepped into a screenwriting workshop led by Larry Brody. One of his techniques of teaching was to have someone read from the opening lines of script while Larry sat poised with a drumstick and a cymbal. As soon as the writer wrote something in the script that would cause a film executive to stop reading, he would whack the cymbal. Inexperienced screenwriters rarely got through a first page.

The movie deftly conveys the central question of the novel, whether Katniss will be able to keep her humanity when she enters the games? A major secondary question in the book, whether Katniss would have a relationship with Gale, is simply suggested in the movie.

The movie of The Lovely Bones offers an example of how turning a novel into a movie can go off the rails. That movie starts with an image of a penguin 'trapped' in a snow globe. This muffles what the story is about, grief destroying the family, to offer a different, unrelated idea, how someone can be frozen in an environment (like Suzy in the after life). The movie continues with narration to try and quickly convery the main character and plot threads, but with the central issue of grief muffled, the opening of the film feels busy and muddled.

And a central feature of Suzie's after life -- that it's a kind of drab way-station for people who haven't let go of earthly life -- is turned into a kind of super-sized, colorful, amazing theme park that everyone should desire. It's late in the film before the real purpose of this after life becomes apparent and reconnects to the plot of the film.

By that point, the film has for too long been a series of haphazard plot and character threads, unlike the movie of The Hunger Games, or the novel of The Lovely Bones.

I suggest that people who want to convert a novel into a script focus on the spine of the story, the action of the main characters, and be willing to let minor threads go.

Lastly, people who loved The Hunger Games the novel should enjoy the movie very much, unless you're a cat person.


Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. He is also the web master of, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays. Spirit is now available at

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Power Networking for Writers: It is About Who You Know, by Julie Fast

Julie FastIt's very exciting to finish a writing project. This requires time and diligence and is a true accomplishment. Unfortunately, some of the most talented writers work for years to sell a project, be it a book or a screenplay and wonder why the success they crave remains elusive.
It's easy to feel that authors who are published know something secret. And they often do. They understand that who you know is sometimes as important as the project itself. They understand the power of networking.
Networking takes confidence, research and planning. But it can make a huge difference in your conference experience.
My best advice is to take advantage of every networking opportunity you can find. Scope out the agents and publishers you want to meet and take their classes. You can then hear their special offers. Talk with people in the cafĂ© and sit next to the person at lunch who has something you want. Yes, it's Machiavellian, but if you want to get published, this is often what it takes.  
I've taught ePublishing classes at the conference for seven years. I always say, "Let me know your topic and I will point you in the right direction of an agent or my agent." Guess what? About 10% take me up on the offer. Five of my students are now published and one worked with my agent. As a teacher, I'm impressed by networking. So don't be shy about networking. They weren't.
You are no different than writers who seem more successful than yourself. They wrote well (as I hope you do!) and then knew how to relentlessly network to get what they wanted. I've been in the publishing world for ten years and I know the big secret. Agents and published writers have to network as much as you do. So get out there, network at the conference and sell your project!
I hope to see you in class.
Julie A. Fast
Julie is teaching a class at the Willamette Writers conference, August 3-5th in Portland, Oregon.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Notes on Hysteria (the Movie)


This movie demonstrates the problems of trying to cover a lot of terrain with a shifting mix of tones. The first set up is a young doctor in 19th century London who discovers his promotion of the new ideas of germs and washing hands between patients keeps getting him fired by older doctors. He then gets a job with a doctor who uses orgasms to treat the the common malady of upper-middle class women, hysteria (which was considered to be a condition afflicting women until 1950).

His employer has a chaste young daughter he's opening shopping to the young doctor, and a fire-brand, force of nature oldest daughter who torments her father with her ideas of poor people being human beings deserving of compassion, education, and medical care.

The film covers the slow, sedate courtship of the young doctor and the young woman, interrupted by ocassional outbursts when the older daughter passed through pleading for money or support.

The question, who will he end up with?

But his immediate problem is he's wearing out his hand servicing women in the clinic, some of whom take hours of stimulation to climax and get relief from their symptoms (which mostly seem to be passing the time in the long wait for treatment).

Meanwhile, the young doctor's wealthy benefactor invents what becomes the first electric vibrator, creating a huge demand for the young doctor's services. At this point, the film shifts to being a droll British sex comedy.

The film shifts back to a realistic tone to deal with the young doctor realizing he's in love with young fury, not young chaste.

The problem is, he's barely spent any time with her, so the relationship feels abrupt, and has a different tone from the realism about medical procedures, then the comedic tone, then the serious tone about women's rights and the treatment of the poor.

The film has a good heart. It allows the young daughter to have the realization that a better life for her won't involve being the wife of the young doctor.

Shifts in tone can be one of the most common problems in first scripts. The shift in tone helps create the effect of a climax at the same time it undercuts the effect. 





Tanya Wexler


Stephen Dyer (story), Jonah Lisa Dyer (story)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Juanita Havill Interview on Authors Road


After only a few minutes talking with Juanita Havill, it comes as no surprise to learn she is author of a number of successful children’s books. She is possessed of that elegance, gentle style, and hopeful optimism that we all want our own children to learn. And for this reason it is very easy to imagine her having been honored at a White House reception for children’s authors after the First Lady read one of her stories to a radio audience.

Once more we are excited to share with you yet another noted American writer that we’ve met along the Authors Road. We spent a morning talking with Juanita at her home in the warm winter sun of southern Arizona. She shared with us tales of growing up and loving to read and treasuring books, her early life working at a newspaper founded by her great grandfather, and learning the rules and discipline of writing that have led her to a long and successful career.

We’re certain you’ll enjoy and benefit from her insights and wit as she shares her story of becoming an author, and how she sees changes ahead. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

About Doubt, by Molly Best Tinsley

  Writers hear voices--a provocative sentence or two bubbling up in the mind’s ear; a created, or remembered, character beginning to speak autonomously.  These are gifts of the creative process to be cherished.  Then there are the other voices, the ones that chime in when we’re mustering the energy to get started on a project, or when the first burst of energy has been spent and we’re trying to figure out where to go next.  “Why bother?” these voices ask.  “You’re not a real writer.  That was a dumb idea.  You’ll never get it  to come out right.  What’s the point of going on?”
These doubts are the legacies of childhood, when parents and other adults defined who we were and decreed what we had to do.  Back then, writing meant navigating a tangle of rules—spelling, grammar, and “what the teacher wants.”  There is safety in all these obsolete limitations; they maintain the status quo.  But they have nothing to do with our creative abilities or the vitality of our writing.  We must laugh them off our mental stage, embrace the freedom, and forge on. 
No one ever postpones or stops writing because of lack of talent or technical expertise.  The talent is always there to be tapped, and solutions abound for any technical writing problem.  There’s only one thing that can stop us from writing if we let it, and that is self-doubt.

Molly Tinsley left the English faculty at the US Naval Academy to write full-time.  Her story collection Throwing Knives won the Oregon Book Award; her most recent release is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone.  Three years ago she donned the editor/publisher hat, co-founding the small press Fuze Publishing (  She facilitates the workshops, Crafting Lively Dialogue and The Second Draft.

For more information about the conference, visit

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Graph Your Novel (Seriously!) , by Amber Keyser

If writing a first draft is like trying to out-run an avalanche, revision resembles digging out with a shovel.  Any tool that can cut through the details and provide a panoramic view of the shape of our story is useful.  Try a graph—seriously! 
Pick 1-3 things that you want to focus on and that you can rate on a 1-10 scale.  Some examples include voice, pace, likeability of a character, emotional intensity, conflict, fluidity of language, narrative coherency, moving plot forward, or a character’s transition from one state to another.  If a critique partner is doing this for you, asking if s/he’s “lost” will help analyze backstory components.  One of my critique group members analyzed the “turn the page factor” on a scale from 1, completely uninterested, to 10, can’t stop to pee.
Next make a graph that has all the chapters of your book on the X-axis (that’s the bottom line) and the numbers 1-10 on the Y-axis (vertical line).  Read each chapter and try to give a gut-level rating for each of your factors.  Connect the dots with a different color pen for each factor (e.x. red for conflict, blue for emotional intensity). 
Patterns will emerge.  For example, if properly plotted, conflict should trend upward (zigging and zagging a little on the way) toward a peak at the climactic chapter and then resolve downward quickly to the end.  One recent novel analyzed this way showed three distinct peaks at the end.  The author gave equal weight to the resolution of three major plot lines.  The book felt like it didn’t know where to end.  A line tracking reader’s involvement of the story will identify flabby chapters. 
Graphs like these can be powerful tools to help writers identify the parts of their manuscript that aren’t doing enough work or aren’t doing the right work.  They help you see where to focus your revision work.  And they’re pretty cool—seriously!
Amber Keyser is the author of five books for young readers, including a picture book, three nonfiction titles, and a forthcoming novel that is part of Angel Punk, a transmedia storyworld.  At the conference, Amber will teach Creating Transmedia: Big Stories, Collaboration and Cross Pollination and Using a Critique Group to Enhance Your Writing Life.  More at and