Week One as a Teacher

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I am doing a writing and acting workshop with a group of local teens. Our first day we attempted to make the elements of Story Arc and Character Arc both interesting and accessible to a group of teenagers whose summer brains are operating at full-force.

Aside: Summer brain is the slush your gray matter changes into over the break from school due to the sweltering heat, the many hours spent playing video games, your transformation into a creature of the night, and all the slushies/Frostys/Acai Berry Bowls you can eat while still not getting your ass up off the couch. Being a teen on summer break was, seriously, the best!

Their brains seemed relatively intact, which made our jobs a lot easier. (And way more fun.) The first thing I learned about teaching teenagers comes from the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and is poorly paraphrased here, by me: Success depends on winning decisive engagements quickly. 

I’ve yet to meet a teen, or a 28-year-old writer spright, with a tolerance for blathering. My co-teacher (who is a more patient person and a highly trained actor) and I divided to conquer. We also talked really fast and tried to make them constantly answer questions so they wouldn’t fall asleep or yank phones out of pockets to Tweet about their lame-ass teachers. We knew they would stay awake, but what we wanted was them to care. Teens, as a rule, can’t openly care. But there are subtle hints they give you that show they do (again, not getting on their phones) and that means you’re winning.

Our second tactic for holding their interest comes from my belief, and strong support for this belief from educators and scientists, that finding a common interest breeds trust. In our breakdown of the story arc, we went through a very popular book and film that every teen in the world has read or seen: The Hunger Games. Whenever we saw interest waning, we brought it back to Katniss. Not only was I thoroughly impressed by their knowledge and understanding of the story, but by their nearly spot on evaluation of the plot based on the formula I had given them for story arc.

When discussing common character arcs, we opened it up for them to try to figure out which films or books followed which arc. And mostly, they nailed it. These exercises proved to me that they were learning, and to them that these skills could result in their own brand of awesomeness. In a story they can actually be proud of. In characters we actually might care about.

The goal of all of this was, of course, not just to gush over The Hunger Games. The goal was to lay a foundation for understanding character and story so that when they began writing their own short-films, they would have knowledge beyond instinct and personal desire to draw from.

We then put the plan into action. My co-teacher played a piece of instrumental music and the kids brainstormed what they saw, or felt, or interpreted from it. Next, we broke them into groups and played another piece of music, giving each group the task of creating a story — with a beginning, middle, and end— to the music.

They attacked the task and all managed to pull together a story — largely consisting of some kind of superhero or galactic battle at either a wedding or dance.

Next week — screen tests and rough drafts. Woo-hoo!

Road Trip Wednesday: #153 Book-to-Film

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. We ,the bloggers who love YA Highway, post our response and then link it in the comments of the YA Highway site. Pretty fun!

This weeks topic: It isn’t surprising that this month’s Bookmobile selection, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bonehas sold film rights; the darkly magical world of the Shadow Fold begs for an on-screen translation! But that got us wondering. We’d like to know, in your opinion, what is it that makes some books seem ideal for a film translation?

I am inspired by this topic for a couple of reasons:

1) Like most readers, great world-building and character development are the food for my imagination. Envisioning the world, and “casting” a book I love is one of my favorite parts of reading.

2) With my screenwriting background, editing a book for movie translation is something I never seem to be able to avoid. Some books are easy (like when I read The Hunger Games, but Suzanne Collins used to be a screenwriter) some are hard (like Pure, with it’s multiple plot lines and sensory overload), all are fun.

I agree with the author of this topic, Shadow and Bone will lend itself well to film. It’s ripe with vivid images and told in a straight line by the narrator. Finding the visual narrative thread, and knowing what perspective to shoot in, should not prove too complicated for the writer tasked with adapting the screenplay. And that, in essence, is my answer. Book to film translation is so tricky for those very reasons: narrative voice and scope. When you read a book, the author has pages and pages of time to build and fill and maneuver the characters into the heart of the reader.

When writing a screenplay, every page (which is made up of minimally described scene, action and dialogue) has to do a lot of work. Each page of a screenplay is the equivalent to one minute of screen time. Most screenplays are 120 pages, (2 hour films) with some being much shorter and some being much longer. The Hunger Games screenplay, for instance, would have been roughly 142 pages for its 142 run-time. The book was 382 pages, a 140 page gap. This is not even taking into account the difference in word count per page.

My point? A book to screen adaptation is reliant largely on how easy the information given in the longer novel is to translate into action. Screen time is action driven, even if its a character piece. This is where the breakdown happens, I think, with a lot of books turned to film. For a book to work as a film there needs to be a strong action thread (By action I do not just mean running, fighting, or killing. Action is just anything that pushes the plot forward.) and one that is easy to show on film.

To drive this point home: the seventh Harry Potter book made a horrible movie. The last half of the book, as well as the second film, was easier to interpret because it was pretty purpose driven. The first part of the book, and the first film, was plodding and pushed forward by sheer will. We got through both because we were all fully vested in the characters. This will not happen for every book-to-film adaptation.

Divergent should make a pretty compelling film, as long as they remember Tris’ energy and don’t get too bound up in being overly-clever with storytelling. With first person POV translations, the trick is finding a new narrative voice (why I think Twilight was such a massive failure) to help the audience into the story.

All of this to say…book to film is always difficult because as a medium they are completely different. The best adaptations are ones with clear purpose, clean storytelling, and images that lend themselves well to screen.

One of the best book-to-film interpretations ever.

RTW Question: My YA Friends

The question for the week is a pretty good one: What in-real-life people can you talk to about YA?

For those who know me well, you will know I have always enjoyed a good book, but until the past few years I wasn’t reading YA much. I had read the obvious (Harry Potter, Twilight) but beyond that, I wasn’t really aware of the genre. I felt like there were so many classics I hadn’t sunk my teeth into yet that I really shouldn’t be wasting time on new works. Also, I went through a historical fiction phase — which I still enjoy — and that can be a little exhausting.

About two years ago I was looking for a new read, and my mom had this middle-age book called Savvy  (check it out on Goodreads) sitting on her coffee table. I zoomed through it in a day, exhilarated by the gentle romance and coming-of-age themes. My mom isn’t really a YA reader, so she’s not one of my people, but I’m getting there. That same weekend I spent time with my sister-in-law Stephanie.

Stephanie is one of the hippest chicks I know. Seriously, here hair was like three shades of red the last time I saw her. She’s up on pop culture references and music, but most of all, Stephanie is a reader, and most commonly she is reading something YA. I mentioned I had read Savvy , and wanted something new in the YA genre. Stephanie was the one to give me The Hunger Games. I read all three books in four days. I was a psycho-zombie-Peeta-groupie. I spent the day after I finished crying like a baby, trying to make sense of what I had just experienced. From that moment on, I was sold, and Steph and I have found yet another reason why we were both so impeccably cool.

This pic features some of my YA friends. Stephanie is the one in purple with the mischievous smile.

Then, through that, I discovered there were a whole heepin’ lot of people in my life who were underground YA readers. Now, as I have said before, I am in the latter part of my 20’s, so you can imagine that most of my people are adults. There are some super clever teens in there too, because I love the teens, which is why I am now trying to write for them. The list is as follows, in no particular order:

Jennifer Petersen

Penny Jackson

Hanah Mayes

Katy Petersen

Anna Howington

Abigail DeHart

Tracey Liggett

Dana Davies

Penny Pierce

Carla Mayes

Erica Schulz

Deborah Drake

Stacie Forest

Thank you to all my YA buddies, you all inspire me to be a better writer, and to write something you will love to read. Keep on being fabulous!