Surprise, it’s a case study

Hi Gang. Craig here again, breaking rules left and right. I’m surprising my colleagues today, because I’m supposed to pick apart a book cover. We have assignments on Fridays, and I don’t feel like it today.

We can learn a lot from covers, but I think that knowledge is finite. We’ve talked before about the rule of thirds, the S curve, and other visual elements. Besides, I have something else I want to talk about today.

I rewatch a lot of movies with an author’s eye. In other words, I dissect them to learn things. This got me to thinking some of you might appreciate bits of what I look for. Films are like the Cliff’s Notes of stories. A lengthy work is depicted in a short time frame on the big screen.

A few weeks ago I re-watched Sherlock Holmes. This is the 2009 version with Robert Downey Jr. What I’m looking for is good story craft, character depiction, etc. You could find worse films to study.

It opens with a magic ritual underground. This sets the tone for what kind of story it’s going to be. The beautiful woman about to be sacrificed heightens the viewer/reader intrigue at an important point in the story. Our heroes save the day, case closed, another job well done.

Only then do we drift into character development. The marvelous eccentricities of everyone involved. While all the characters are over the top, we still relate. We get all of Holmes’ idiosyncrasies, but a bit of Watson too. Hints at his gambling and his struggles between the fun of working with Holmes vs what a young man should be doing as far as marriage and becoming respectable. Holmes struggles with the idea of losing his only friend to the bonds of marriage.

The characters are over the top. I’m finding out this sells pretty well. My most popular characters to date are a talking hat and a bunch of animated root vegetables.

If you’re looking for classic Conan Doyle, you’ll be disappointed. Don’t watch it for that, take it as it comes. This is much more of what I call a “buddy story” than the original material. I like the banter between the characters.

The beautiful victim turns out to be Irene Adler, former Holmes adversary and love interest. They don’t spend a bunch of time on her backstory. They hint at it via a gem she stole somewhere, and a few lines from Watson. She’s wonderful in that she’s interesting, untrustworthy, and helps drive the story. Pay attention to how little backstory goes into this tale. They may have had an advantage in that it’s Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t see it that way. Not everyone has read those stories.

Look at the settings. Every scene is busy and intriguing. The dirt streets, the people, carriages, and horses. It’s also suggestive of Victorian decorating where every inch is filled with bits and bobs.

The bridge construction is a plant that pays off later in the film. There are others, many others. Adler’s stolen gem is also a plant. There’s even a glass thread. You can use plants and payoffs to your advantage in your own stories. Watch how they used them.

Notice they didn’t explain every little detail as things added up. Closure on some of this waits until the end of the film. Blackwood somehow survived his hanging. They never slowed down the action to explain all this. They focused on the story rabbit and chased that rabbit. There is a powerful lesson in this for fiction writers. Focus on the rabbit. Don’t slow things down to explain too much. If you think some closure is needed you can circle back later.

There are other examples, like the filthy laboratory. Holmes gathered evidence there, but the writers focused on the rabbit.

Notice how the film starts out in daylight. Every scene happens during the day until things take a dark turn. Then all the scenes happen after dark. The film ends with the rising sun to indicate the positive change at the end. It walked the viewer into the mood very well. Writers can manipulate readers the same way.

I’m not saying to write this story, just study it. Find the tricks that might work for you.

How about it, gang? Do you watch films as a form of case study? Can you adapt some of this to your own writing? Would you rather have had a book cover? Am I in trouble with my colleagues?

50 thoughts on “Surprise, it’s a case study

  1. I pay attention to clues and foreshadowing, can tell when some poor actor is stuck in scenes to be the next victim, etc., but I get too wrapped up in the story to catch meaningful symbolism and mood setting. Great point about the use of daylight and night time. I miss the finer points like that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t sit there with a notebook and pick them apart, but I do watch with a writer’s eye, both for what works and what doesn’t. Great post, you rebel you! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I do this all the time. Even before I started writing I would often wonder why a movie as a hit or a miss with me. It still fascinates me. You picked one of my favorite movies. I knew it had a chance when I saw that the three stars were Downey, Law and Rachael McAdams. The three had wonderful chemistry. I liked how they kept Irene Adler somewhat of a mystery. The audience did not need to know everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t watch a lot of movies so can’t comment too much, HOWEVER, I do watch a lot of tv shows, and can’t help but marvel at some of the writing in some shows. The way some writers can pull off whole plot arcs over not just one episode but whole seasons, leaves me stunned and awed. Examples are the writers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I’m in awe at these guys.
    Then for sheer weirdness and only-real-life-can-be-this-blizzare writing, you can’t go past the writers of One Foot in the Grave. Brilliant stuff. And sadly, the type of writing that makes me look at my own and go, ‘wow, I’m so crap in comparioson’ 🥴

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I tend to watch movies (and television) with a writer’s eye. I like to pick up on characterizations, settings, etc. Sometimes unspoken words between characters speak volumes. I haven’t seen the movie you talked about but you’ve given some great examples.

    And no, you’re not in trouble. I like it when someone is a rebel now and then. I tend to be one myself. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I believe once you start writing, it’s hard to turn off. I know I see things and think, really? Is that how you’re going to do this? I tend to see typos and grammar errors when reading. It’s hard to turn off.

    But you are right, there is so much you can learn from movies. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is an interesting post. I’ve learned movies (and television) work from scenes. The transition isn’t always noticeable, but it’s there. The settings are crucial- they give dimension to the characters and what they’re trying to achieve. One such scene is from Indiana Jones- Raiders of the Lost Ark (The library scene). There are so many memorable scenes in this movie, but the professor’s impromptu speech was one of my favorites:
    Classic Indie 🙂

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  8. When I’m watching a movies i love being taken away by them. Now though I do find myself noting little things and how its all put together. What I would or wouldn’t do.

    I find it’s the personality of characters that draw me in. If its something unique, like a hat or root monsters, I’m able to let go and accept them for what they are since I have no preconceived idea about them.

    Have a great weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. What an excellent dissection of the movie, Craig. For a screenwriting class, I took once, I had the assignment of doing this exercise with Gran Torino. Since that class, I’ve never watched movies the same way. We can learn a lot from them and especially about the backstory part. We tend to think we need to tell the reader everything or they won’t figure it out. That’s just not true and I am WAY guilty of that one. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think most of the population has seen more movies than have read books. Like you I study films to get a perspective on the scene development and dialog. One of the best is Chinatown. You can watch it several times and learn new things each time.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I like being surprised, so it was very cool to see this post today.

    I’ll normally watch a movie for sheer viewing pleasure, but every now and then (usually when something ridiculous happens or I see the writers manipulating plot threads for convenience) then my writer’s eye kicks in. I love the Sherlock Holmes movies and have been eagerly awaiting for number 3. I was glad to hear it’s in the works (Staci’s comment) but wish it weren’t so far away!

    I think you were very keen to pick up on the daylight scenes, followed by dark night scenes when the plot turned a corner, and then the rising sun at the end. I never noticed those things but what subtle manipulation by the writers. In this case, extremely well done. That goes for your post, too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mae. I thought about covers, and then thought some more… There is only so much to be learned from cover art. Glad to know I’m not being locked in the stocks until I do a cover post. Hopefully, this weekend I can chase my own story rabbit.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. So much trouble, Craig! Your punishment is to write another root monster story.

    Kidding. About being in trouble, not about the root monsters. I really want to see them again.

    I also watch movies with a critical eye. I wish I didn’t; I’d love to just enjoy a story. But I can’t turn it off. (I can’t when I read, either.) I love this movie, and I love your analysis of it. (BTW, Sherlock Holmes 3 comes out December 25, 2020.)

    Liked by 4 people

  13. I love watching movies, and I completely lose myself within the story. It would be a struggle for me to watch a movie as a case study. At least, it would be during my first viewing of it, and I barely ever have time to watch a movie a second time, though I truly wish I could. That being said, as a teacher, I will show my students clips of movies/videos and have them analyze setting, character development, climax, suspense, etc. There is so much we can learn from how a film brings stories to life. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Yes, I do watch films to learn from the experts. Yes, I probably will adapt and include some of what I learn into my own work.
    And no, I wouldn’t rather have had a book cover, this was infinitely better.
    And I shouldn’t imagine you could be in trouble from anyone!

    Liked by 2 people

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