Lights, Camera, Fiction! by Alfie Thompson
reviewed by Susi Liarte
In this post I’m going to write about why I love this book, what it offers (and what it doesn’t) and how it can help writers among the many other writing books out there. I haven’t read any of the author’s other books, but I know she has published one called Writing for the Reader which I’m interested in checking out next.
Lights, Camera, Fiction! packs a lot into a slim, 250 page volume. Its tagline is “A movie lover’s guide to writing a novel”. The book approaches the subject by analysing several well-known films and picking out different aspects such as character and plot in order to showcase what they do well, and how this can work for novels as well as screenwriting. The core structure pairs one film for each topic as follows, but references and examples to other films are scattered throughout.
Characterisation – While You Were Sleeping
External Goals and Motivation – Spider-Man
Internal Goals and Character Growth – Speed
Premise – Clueless
Creating Tension – Lethal Weapon
Conflict – The Sixth Sense
Suspending Disbelief – Die Hard
Five-Star Plotting – Bridget Jones’ Diary
Putting It All Together – Jaws
Having watched and enjoyed most of these films already prior to reading this book, I was interested in the analysis of each one, and that’s part of the delight of rereading it, purely as a film fan. The author manages to pick out insightful things about each one which make me appreciate and admire the films even more.
For example, in While You Were Sleeping, main character Lucy saves her crush Peter’s life, but while he is in hospital she falls in love with his brother, Jack. In Characterisation, the author talks about Lucy’s character being established as lonely and passive, which is what prompts her to keep a secret for most of the film. So when the climax of the story arrives, we wonder how she is going to resolve the situation – revealing her lie will force her to give up being passive and do the right thing, but also risks her being alone again. Conversely, Jack’s duty to his family keeps him from admitting his feelings for Lucy. Both characters are shown as acting true to themselves throughout the film. However, following their hearts will test how deeply embedded those traits are. Crucially, we know that Lucy can do something active (and selfless) when it counts, because she already risked her life to save someone.
This chapter gives a great introduction to the format of each chapter, because establishing and understanding characters is important to a story. The analysis of the film is in the main text, and there are two types of sidebar boxes: Quick Tips for those who are writing their story, and Quick Fixes for those who have a story but want to improve it. A few examples:
Internal Goals and Character Growth
Quick Tip – “In an action-driven story, the number of obstacles the character will face to reach his external goals will be greater than the number he faces to reach his internal goals. In a character-driven story, it will probably be equal or the opposite.”
Quick Fix – “Is your story too predictable? Every strength or asset you give your character has a negative side. If your character’s strengths make things too predictable, let using his strength backfire.”
Quick Tip – “Conflict is about courage. For every element of conflict you are telling, ask: Does facing the obstacle require courage on the part of this character?”
Putting it all together
Quick Fix – “If the pace feels wrong… check sentence structure. Long sentences with lots of qualifiers and description and modifiers are thought-provoking, but slow the reader down. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Short, sparse sentences read quickly.”
This brings me to what the book isn’t designed to do. While there are a few brief references to writing habits in some of the sidebars, it is not about developing your writing skills. The main focus of the advice is the various concepts within storytelling. Right at the very beginning, the author makes it clear that you can’t learn to write by watching films, but by writing. Does this mean this book is not for beginners? Not at all. I think that by writing in an engaging way about films, it allows the reader to get a grasp of these storytelling tools and think about them when they are creating their own stories. Other books can then help with the writing process itself. The author also defines who the main audience is – those wishing to write “publishable, commercial fiction”. This makes sense, given that the films not only got made and marketed, but most of them are popular, and come from an industry where there are conventional kinds of plots.
Interestingly, two of the main films covered (Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary) are based on Jane Austen novels Emma and Pride and Prejudice, and these are also discussed alongside the films. It brings some of the themes full circle and supports the idea that the storytelling elements can be applied in either film or novel format. The author states in the introductory chapter and in the Premise chapter that some insights into stories might not necessarily reflect the creator’s intent – sometimes themes only emerge after a story is written. I think this is a useful thing to remember when considering the advice in the book – rather than planning a perfectly executed plot that tries to take account of everything, it is only when the story is written that we can start nailing down some of the elements that are difficult. While I enjoyed the analysis on Bridget Jones’ Diary, I do think the chapter (Five-Star Plotting) got a bit convoluted as it used the same five point star to represent different things, so was less useful to me than some of the other sections.
On the whole, I find Lights, Camera, Fiction to be a really interesting and enjoyable read, and I learn something new with each chapter. I am happy with the attention on several films that I love, and I can appreciate some of the ones I’m not so familiar with. However, I don’t know if it will be the same for someone who hasn’t watched any of the films – although it might be interesting to read the analysis first and then watch it, for someone who wasn’t invested (and didn’t mind spoilers!)
In the author’s parting thoughts, she says, “put anything this book has helped you understand in the back of your brain. Forget about it and let your subconscious do its magic, You go write!” – and in a book where the focus is on successful story formulas, that’s a really valuable point to come back to.