One of my favorite ways to prepare for writing a new novel is to breakdown stories and figure out how they were made and why they either work or don't work. I can remember walking into my first film class in college, Film Structure 101, taught by Joseph L. Anderson. Joe had worked on THRONE OF BLOOD with Akira Kurosawa, was the leading scholar on Japanese film in the country, and created the Japanese director series for PBS. He chose the directors, the films, and was responsible for all of the subtitles and translations. The first thing he said on the first day of class was that if you had any intention of becoming an artist or critic, you needed to understand the difference between good and great. When you're only eighteen-years-old a statement like that has a certain reach about it and can go in a lot of different places. But the reason I'm mentioning it now is quite straightforward: breaking down a story that doesn't work is often times as enlightening as breaking down a story that blows me away. And if I examine both kinds of stories, after a while I'll know more than what makes a great story great--I'll know why.
|Kurosawa's 1957 masterpiece, Throne of Blood|
When I'm doing a story breakdown, I don't include novels. I realize that this may sound strange. But the truth is that there are way too many reasons why I like to read a work of fiction. It could be the characters, the plot, or maybe it's the author's voice. It could be the time the novel was written in, the idiosyncrasies of the language from that time or the setting. It could be the pleasure I get in knowing what a character is thinking or feeling. In a novel the story is often times hidden or masked by the complexity of the experience. In a novel the story can be hard to see. But even more, because the experience is multifaceted, reading a great novel doesn't necessarily mean that I'm reading a great story.
In a film the situation is entirely different. The story is out in the open. Notice that if the story doesn't work in a film, no amount of effort by the cast, the director or cinematographer can change the outcome. If the story doesn't work in a film, it's just a bad film. And that's why I breakdown films and not novels when I'm developing a new idea.