What Novelists Can Learn From the Oscars

I’ve recently torn apart my urban fantasy novel and tried to put it back together better, stronger, faster. The main character, our hero, had way too much support going into his final confrontation with the Big Bad. I’ve always loved the set-up of the group of mismatched characters forced to band together to fight evil. My ‘darling’ worked against me here.

What was needed was for Jamie, my boy who must become a man to save his dying sister, to feel so desperate that he does something balls-out stupid and gutsy. I threw the complex plot into a crucible and tried to burn away everything that wasn’t Jamie’s last stand.

It got me thinking about some Oscar-winning films that have received a bad rap for beating out “better” films. Specifically, Rocky, Titanic and Gladiator. What all three have in common is a clear, easy-to-root-for main character with a fierce goal.

Rocky, Best Picture of 1976. The other nominees:
All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
Taxi Driver

Should Network have won Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky’s dark satire of television? Yes. Should All the President’s Men have won Best Adapted Screenplay for its expert winnowing down of the complex Watergate scandal? Yes and yes.

But, though a great movie starts with a great screenplay, in the end, it will add up to more than the sum of its parts. In the end, movies and novels are all about The Story.

The Story of Taxi Driver, with its bleak urban decay and psychotic anti-hero Travis Bickle, is a harder throughline to define than Rocky’s boxing Cinderella tale.

Titanic, 1997 Best Picture Winner in this field:
As Good As It Gets
The Full Monty
Good Will Hunting
LA Confidential

Sure, the big boat CGI got the headlines. But Titanic won because The Story was clear. Love saves the day.

Quick, in 1000 words or less, who was the hero of LA Confidential?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the movie. But The Story is difficult to tell without resorting to Sid Hudgens-style tabloid headlines–about fifty of them. Would I say Titanic is a better film? No. But I get why it won.

Gladiator was the Best Picture of 2000. The competition:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich

I would never defend that Gladiator should have won a Best Screenplay award. But the movie originally had a different ending, with Maximus getting his army and storming Rome. The expensive, complicated plan was scrapped in favor of the simple idea: Maximus had to fight Commodus and restore justice mano a mano. That decision is what gave the movie its power; one man with a burning goal.

So, am I saying dumb down your story so that any thirteen-year-old will think it’s awesome? No. What I am saying is consider this: If you find your novel feels overly complicated and goes on too long at the end, try examining The Story. If you can’t define what that is, you might have a clue as to the work you need to do.

This entry was posted in Characterization, Fiction, Plot, Reviews, Revision, Scenecraft, Writing Craft and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Novelists Can Learn From the Oscars

  1. a clear, easy-to-root-for main character with a fierce goal.
    An ingenious observation, pure and simple.
    Gee, and I thought one of the secrets to winning an Oscar was “historical epic”, such as Gone With The Wind, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Ghandi, The Last Emperor, Unforgiven, Titanic πŸ˜‰ , and Gladiator πŸ˜‰ …
    Forrest Gump won six Oscars in 1994 (including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Screenplay adaptation), and I still haven’t figured out what his “fierce goal”was. 😈
    Gump was a clear, sympathetic character, so two out of three ain’t bad. πŸ˜‰


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Historical epic is one of the secrets. (I’m not sure I would put Unforgiven in that group, even though it was historical. Great movie, but not an epic. Deconstructed Western, if that’s a thing.)

      Forrest Gump, the character, started off as a cipher, absorbing what was going on around him. But I thought as the story progressed, he began to long for things, and that’s when he became a fully realized character. He longed for Jenny, he longed to be normal, he longed to be a man in full. Though the throughline of the story was sort of random, like a box of chocolates, his yearning came through in the end.


  2. Terry Wright says:

    As writers (especially those of us who have been doing this a long time) we know what makes a good novel. It’s a great story. It’s likeable characters. It’s show don’t tell. It’s active voice. It’s fresh writing. It’s structure. It’s a satisfying ending. I could go on and on. The problem is two-fold. #1 getting all that down on paper and #2 getting someone to see the brilliance in the masterpiece you’ve created. Many great stories from great writers have not been published because #2 didn’t see any MONEY in #1. So write from the heart, write from the soul, and write for the sheer joy of writing. For many of us, that’s all we’re ever going to get for our blood, sweat, and tears.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      So true. Sometimes a hard lesson, but it’s always important to enjoy your own stories first, or others probably won’t and you’ll be left with a lot of work on something you didn’t even want to read.


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