Category Archives: Nathan Barra

Always Be Film Friendly: Blue Beetles vs Vietnam Jeeps

After four years spent studying for an engineering degree, I was left with one final semester to fill with a handful of electives. Wanting a change of pace, I signed up for a class in cinematography. It fulfilled the requirements for my degree while also allowing me to stretch my creative muscles in a new way. Looking back, I’m very glad that I did. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the class, but getting a glimpse into how our colleagues in film live and think has helped me with my own writing.

book-to-movieLeveraging your IP into a film or miniseries adaptation is one of the best ways to make money as a writer. Not only can you get the income from licensing your rights, but having a major motion picture or miniseries made will give your works access to a much larger audience. The phrase “based on a bestselling series” is good for both sides of the business. It attracts attention to the movie, but it will also give a healthy boost to your book sales leading up to the release.

Therefore, it is in your best interest as a writer to be “film friendly.” But what does that mean in practical terms? While there are many aspects to consider, I want to focus on what I see as the four key points I took away from the class.

First, while there are many elements of story that an author needs to balance when writing, there are a few that top the list when it comes to translating a work from page to film. Chief amongst these are strong characters, vivid setting descriptions, compelling plots, and powerful dialog. Focusing on these skills will not only make your writing better, they will also make your property more attractive as an adaptation.

As an example, look at how Jim Butcher structured the early part of his series, The Dresden Files. Though each book built upon the events of the previous volumes, they were also fairly episodic and self-contained. They showcased strong characters that would catch and hold the reader’s attention. These characters and the world they lived in were described in concise, yet catchy ways. The books had all the hooks needed for a reader to jump in at any point in the first five or six volumes without getting lost.

These stylistic choices were also very good for the SciFi Channel when they adapted the series to television. One book became one episode without too much lost in translation. The strength of the characters inspired the actors and the descriptions were able to guide and influence the visuals of the series.

Second, an author needs to consider what details will be lost in the translation to film. In prose, we have the advantage of being able to use all five senses and deep penetration to convey the character’s experiences to the reader. However, films generally rely on sight and hearing with limited character depth. That’s precisely why the book is almost always “better” than the movie. The reader experiences more than the viewer.

harrydresden-profileHowever, film has significant advantages in its ability to employ complex visual elements. As authors, we rely on the power of our language to inspire our audience’s imaginations. Film, on the other hand, relies on the skill of the special effects, costuming, and set design teams as well as the training of the actors. When you write a book, be sure to feed those teams with strong, iconic visuals. Furthermore, a five second panning shot can show the thousands of tiny details that would take an author five pages to describe. You get the same effect without having to worry about slowing down pacing.

Harry Dresden was designed to be very visually striking. Nearly seven-foot-tall, big billowy duster coat, glowing staff, and both the ability and inclination to throw fire at all his problems? That man will stand out in a crowd! Consider also the fantastic scenery of the Never-Never, the ominous cloaks of the Wardens, and the horrifying creatures Harry faces.All these elements provide fodder for the creative teams of the TV series to work with.

Additionally, we authors need to balance the “wow” factor of our stories with the movie’s potential budget and physical limitations. As writers, we don’t need to think twice about scenes set in busy cities (a gigantic logistical pain in the ass), on the high seas (you’d be surprised at how expensive it is to shoot on water), or having massive armies clash for the fate of the world (where are you going to find all those extras anyways?). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid anything that would be expensive or challenging to film. Each of those examples have been done, after all. Just be aware that production price will be considered when making an offer on your IP. If you can pack the same “wow” factor into a smaller budget, your work will be that much more appealing.

illinois-chicago-dresden-files-harryThough many of Dresden’s spells were fantastic, they were also remarkably low budget. Making the pentacle necklace glow? Not hard. Blasts of fire would take more skill, but can be done in a number of film editing softwares. As can Bob’s glowing campfire sparks.

The very best example comes from a sequence in Fool Moon. At one point, Dresden takes a don’t-notice-me potion and the world goes all sepia. Only people who notice him appear in full color. There are many ways that Butcher could have written that scene, but the one he chose was excellent for film. Super easy to execute while also being very visually appealing.

Finally, authors need to be willing to compromise with their artistic vision. The book may be ours, but the film adaptation is a collaborative work. After all screen writers, directors, and actors are all artists too and deserve to have the freedom to ply their craft. Secondly, there are certain practicalities to filming that cannot be ignored, but that the author might not even be aware exist. A good adapter will account for these changes will still honoring the original work.

blue-beetleFor example, the directors of the Dresden Files TV series chose to eliminate the beloved Blue Beetle in favor of a Vietnam era jeep. While the Blue Beetle provided good comic relief in the books, it would have been an extremely difficult set piece to shoot. The director’s camera angles would have been severely limited by how small and enclosed the vehicle was. The only way to get around this problem would be to have multiple Beetles – the first for exterior shots, and a second that was partially disassembled accommodate to the cameras for the interior shots.

Instead, they chose to use a Vietnam era jeep as Harry’s vehicle of choice. Jeeps are wide open and extremely camera friendly. Need an interior shot? Remove the fabric roof. Exterior shot? Put it back on. Even better, the jeep honored the spirit of the original piece. In the books, Harry drove the Beetle because it was cheap, easy to maintain and repair, and a low enough tech level that his magic wouldn’t do too much damage. All the same things can be said for the jeep. Personally, I think the screen writers made an excellent choice with the swap.

I’ve long suspected the Jim Butcher was heavily inspired by television techniques when he wrote the Dresden Files. I can’t say if that comes from him being a fan or if he has had formal training somewhere along the line. Either way, his strong characters, episodic early volumes, and striking visual descriptions made it easy for the SciFi Channel to adapt his books into a series. Additionally, his talent for “wow” inspiring magic that could be made real through relatively low budget special effects helped breathe life and wonder into the series. Finally, his willingness to step back and allow others to make creative decisions on the show allowed them to bring their expertise and experience to the project. All in all, I found both the books and series to be very enjoyable, if for very different reasons.

Most Times, Catharsis Isn’t Worth the Price

I get it. You’re angry, furious even. Your masterpiece has been unjustly defamed by a cruddy review. You’ve received your millionth “dear author” rejection letter. Or some idiot at your publishing house has messed up your precious manuscript as they were shuffling it through the process of becoming a best seller. Whatever the cause, all you want to do is lash out and tell the world what a moron the offending individual has been. It’ll feel soooo good to write that scathing blog post, email, or response in the comments section. You’ll be witty and cutting. It’ll go viral. You know that the Internet cannot help but see that you are in the right, that your cause is just.

STOP.

Stop and take a deep breath. Take a walk, beat up a punching bag, or scream at the moon. But whatever you do, do not click send. Not in your current state at least. As good as it would make you feel, trust me, the catharsis isn’t worth it. The Internet never forgets, so why give it something that could come back to haunt you later? Furthermore, the publishing business is a small world where everyone knows everyone else. And, everyone talks. You DO NOT want to be the unflattering email that gets passed around the office. You do not want to end your career in a moment of pique.

So, what do you do? The first step is to acknowledge your emotion. You’re mad. You’re sad. You may be right to feel that way. You may be wrong. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel the emotions, that you admit to them, accept them, and then own them. Acknowledge that your feelings aren’t within your control, but how you act absolutely is. You won’t be judged for being angry, but you will be judged by how you behave.

The next step is to be thoughtful and deliberate in how you will react. The situation is already bad, so what’s the best case scenario for an ending? Chances are that a bad print run, a hostile review, or an impartial rejection cannot be changed. So then, what is in your control? Perception, specifically how others perceive you. Are you going to be the drama king/queen that flies off the handle or are you going to be the suave professional that takes the situation in stride? Will you let your baser instincts drive your reactions, or will you rise above them?

Let’s be frank. You cannot use anger to win over someone who is determined to be hostile. More often than not, both parties simply make fools of themselves. If you don’t feed the haters, they’ll get bored and find the next person they can rile up. Like the wise samurai, leave them with their anger, jealousy, and vitriol. If you write the best book you can, keep improving your craft, and be a likable author, your fans will speak up for you. Their praise and fan-love will drown out the haters.

Impersonal rejection is part of the business. We all deal with it, and past rejection has no bearing on your future success. J.K. Rowling was rejected by, what? 12 different publishers? Now she’s one of the most loved and powerful voices in the world. Furthermore, there is no point in souring your relationship with an editor or agent just because your manuscript doesn’t fit their needs at this time. Throwing a fit just convinces them that you are too much trouble to be worth working with in the future. And they will share that opinion with all their friends and colleagues. By ranting at one closed door, you may destroy another opportunity.

Sometimes even major goofs can be turned to your advantage. I recently read a really suave blog post from an author I admire. He had written a short story for an anthology. Somehow, the end of his story was left out of the first run of printed books. What a big “ooops!” However, instead of expressing perfectly justifiable frustration, he publicly acknowledged that such mistakes sometimes happen. He went on to tell his fans that the publisher had fixed the problem and reordered the copies of the book, so future orders would be whole. However, there existed 50 books with the miss-print. Act fast, he urged us, and the publisher will sell you a signed copy of the miss-printed book paired with a special, one-run-only chapbook that contained the end of the story. That’s right! Only 50 of these items would ever exist. In so doing, he turned an embarrassing mistake into a collectible. Now, that’s smart business.

There are many things in this world that are beyond our direct control. Mistakes will be made. People will be hateful. Business deals won’t always go through. We will feel angry, frustrated, and disappointed when these things happen. However, how we choose to respond to these circumstances will define who we are. More importantly, it will shape how others think of us. In our media driven world, perception is power. It’s the power to sell books, close deals, and win over lifelong fans.

So you’ve acknowledged and mastered your emotions. Now you have a choice to make. Will you be the author who flies off the handle when things go wrong or will you be the suave professional? Will you be the voice that adds to the cacophony and catastrophe, or will you be the one to turn a bad situation into an opportunity? An emotionally driven outburst may make you feel better in the short run, but it often makes matters worse. So when you feel the need to unleash a heaping portion of righteous wrath, instead think… is the catharsis really worth it?

Write Short Stories, Not Small Stories

As a dyed in the wool novelist, I’ve had to work hard to learn to write short stories. My early attempts always came off as… flat. To fix this problem, I experimented with character, with plot, with setting, and even dabbled some with poetic prose. However, nothing I tried made my stories come to life. I would eventually learn that my problem wasn’t with any of those aspects of writing, though all would improve over the years as I practiced my craft. The real issue was with my fundamental understanding of what actually makes a story powerful.

All stories, no matter their length, get their power from manipulating their readers’ emotions. As David Farland taught me, readers are seeking an emotional exercise when they pick up a book. It’s why we organize our bookstores based on the emotions we seek to satisfy. Characters, setting, plot, and prose are all vehicles for establishing reader empathy and then using that connection to twist the heart strings.

In longer works, we have the luxury of taking our time to build an emotional connection. That room to grow is what allows us to hit many different emotional beats over the course of a novel. However, when writing a short story, you need to go straight for the feels. By deciding early on what emotional impact you are aiming for, you are able to ensure that everything works towards those big emotional punches.

Just because we are writing a short story doesn’t mean that we are writing a simple story. We still need memorable characters, sexy settings, and plenty of conflict and change. There must be a beginning, a middle, a climax, and a denouement. We can’t sacrifice any of those elements in the name of saving word count. Nor are we writing small stories. Rather, the best short fiction tackles big emotions, big problems but in a shorter format. I like to think of it as a distillation of story rather than a reduction in word count. Like a good whiskey, a work of short fiction will retain all the elements of its precursor, but in a more potent form.

As is often true, the best way to learn how to write powerful short stories is to study the work of masters. In the case of short fiction, I can think of few better and more accessible than the writers at Pixar. They regularly turn out four or five minute animated features that are not only complete stories, but emotionally satisfying as well. In fact, this track record is one of the main reasons I’d go see just about any new Pixar movie. One of the most potent works of short fiction they’ve published is the first ten minutes of the full length movie, Up. While it was designed to be a prologue to Carl and Russell’s story, those ten minutes have been consistently rated as Pixar’s best short. Below, I’ve embedded the second half of that sequence. But be warned, it’s a tear jerker.

Take a minute to grab a tissue and then we’ll break this sequence down. Pixar spends a little over the first minute showing us the story of a happy couple. They’re married, fix up an old house, and have a pleasantly domestic life. Their introduction as characters is extremely relatable because it resonates with many of the audiences’ own desires and/or experiences. Many of us want to find love, like they did, and live a happy life, like they clearly do. At time 1:07, the characters begin their first try/fail cycle in their pursuit of a “happily married life.” They want to have children. End of act 1.

Pixar spends the next 17 seconds building the baby anticipation before hitting us with the first emotional punch. Without resorting to a single word, the writers tell us that not only did these characters fail to have a child, but it isn’t going to happen. Then they do something critical. Instead of rushing on to the next try/fail cycle, the writers take the time to drive their point home. They show the characters in pain, and in so doing we experience their sense of grief alongside them. However, the story isn’t done.

At a 1:46, Ellie and Carl decide that their infertility won’t get in the way of their “happily married” life-goal. This builds empathy because people who suffer and then pick themselves back up are admirable. They decide to live out their childhood dream of going to Paradise Falls. This is their second try/fail cycle.

As Ellie and Carl work to save up the money they need to travel, life keeps getting in the way. Years pass and they eventually forget about their dream for a time. That is, until Carl rediscovers the goal one day and goes to the trouble to arrange everything as a surprise for his wife. Try/fail cycle #2 ends in success, right? Well, no. Too much time has passed and Ellie is now too sick to go. Act 2 ends at time 3:26.

The climax of this story is Ellie’s death at time 3:55. In the remaining 24 seconds, we experience Carl’s melancholy and sense of loss along with him in the denouement. We see his emotional state in the emptiness of the church and his return to a dark home. We as the audience know that the movie is just beginning, but it feels like an emotionally satisfying, bitter-sweet ending as well.

Pixar is able to tell a complete, romantic tragedy story arc in four minutes and twenty seconds of film because they didn’t try to tell a small story. They didn’t pull any emotional punches, nor did they leave any critical story elements out. Rather, their skill allowed them to know how to quickly establish audience empathy, and then play on that empathy with emotional highs and lows. They reached into our hearts and gave our heartstrings a good, firm tug. In so doing, they told a big story in a small space.

June Wrap-Up!

Hey Folks,

I’d first like to thank every one who contributed a post to this month, Fictorian and guests alike!

The idea of a month devoted to not just research collection (because we’d like to spend more time writing instead, right?), but also some new concepts and ideas we might not have thought of to apply to our stories, thus making them more believable, realistic, or even helping us think of what might be true in the future.

Overall, I hope that our information was useful.


Some of my favorites (and there were many), in no particular order:

I started us off with a discussion on why realism and accurate information was so important in media.
Mostly because I was chased by a black bear once, and man, was I ever glad I read Little House on the Prairie.

Buuut also you know not everyone in your story is going to know the most accurate information, or maybe the readers are so used to an inaccurate trope that realism would cause them to cry foul. So sometimes perfectly accurate information isn’t the most important thing to the story.

Kristin Luna explored how gender can influence perceptions of risk-taking characters, particularly young women. We take risks! But perhaps not in the same way as young male characters might.

Guy Anthony De Marco gave us a 101 on proper terminology and use of firearms. Particularly, please don’t have your character take the safety off the revolver unless they’re removing their finger from the trigger. Just…why.

Marta Sprout wrote an excellent guest post on how crime scenes should, and shouldn’t, be investigated.

Kim May implored us to do our research on the particular culture of an Asian character instead of writing them into a stereotype. 

If we don’t care enough to get it right then we offend readers of that ethnicity — thus losing them as readers — AND we mislead and misinform the readers who aren’t familiar with that ethnicity. Also, by misrepresenting that group we’re ultimately contributing to the cultural oppression of that group — even though we don’t mean to.

I shared how to look for, and write about, a character drowning. Also please watch out for everyone at the pool. Even if they’re a strong swimmer. But especially watch the little ones because I had to pull a kid out who was panicking and that was so scary for them. Pools are supposed to be fun and safe summer memories.

I also wrote about the moving definition of ‘death’ and that lead to a whole exploration of what exactly cryonics are, how it all works, and what one might do with that sort of technology in their story. 

M. J. Carlson gave us a Top 10 list of the most used (and misused) injuries in fiction in his very informative guest post.

Mary Pletsch talked about how misconceptions about the military and soldiers can not only lead to inaccurate plotlines and failed missions, but contribute to ugly misconceptions around real service members.

Nathan Barra had so much on how one can accurately portray scientists outside of the stereotypical tropes that he had to split it into Science Fact and Fiction Part 1 and Part 2.

In Healing in Science Fiction, Jace Killian emphasized how quickly technology can change, and the importance of doing your research on current issues when anticipating future technology.


That’s what we have for June! Stay tuned for an interview with an amazing person tomorrow and check back in July as we discuss genre!

– Emily Godhand