You know those posts where fellow authors have taken NYT Bestsellers, extracted writing lessons from them, and shared those lessons with the rest of us (like this one from Julie Musil a few weeks ago and S.P. Sipal’s website, Harry Potter for Writers, where she does this on a weekly basis)?
Well, this is one such post – inspired by a moment of reflection where I went back and re-read some of my favorite posts like this. But today I’m going to take this nugget of an idea of writing lessons from NYT Bestsellers and share some of my writing lessons from the one area of entertainment (besides reading) where I absolutely love to re-visit the story over and over again and dissect each scene, plot, character and soundtrack: movies. My first choice is my all-time favorite movie, The Breakfast Club (which also features my absolute favorite song of all-time, Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds).
Next week I’m going to visit another fave of mine, Forest Gump. Who knows, this may end up being a weekly thing here on the blog! *wink*
- Hone your craft to become one of the best in your genre: John Hughes is the master when it comes to teenage angst, but that’s not where he began. Hughes spent many a year perfecting his craft of writing by penning stories for National Lampoon Magazine, which after his first one, allowed him to begin working for the publication. The first story he penned was inspired by his real life and the family vacations he took as a child, which in turn inspired the ‘round-the-world-famous movie (and one of his first credited screenplays), National Lampoon’s Vacation. After writing this he wrote a few more stories that succeeded in sharpening his craft and insight into the world of teen life, which wasn’t truly shown until his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles. Then it’s all history from there – although he also tried his hand at other genres so that he wasn’t typecasted as the writer/maker of teen comedies (one of which we all famously know as Home Alone). Imagine how Hughes must’ve felt sitting in the office of National Lampoon Magazine, itching to just write and get his stories out there, to do more with his talents than writing short stories for the magazine. Now, when people think of the movies of the 80’s, they think of John Hughes and the stories he gave us (and many still work to duplicate that success). Though he never penned a book (and most certainly could have), he found his niche, sharpened his craft and allowed himself to grow from there – a lesson that every writer should learn.
- Sometimes the simplest plot isn’t exactly simple: The plot for The Breakfast Club, according to IMDB, is: “Five high school students, all different stereotypes, meet in detention, where they pout their hearts out to each other, and discover how they have a lot more in common than they thought.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But guess what, with further exploration and after clever writing on Hughes’ part, this plot is actually explosive! I sometimes think instead of stating that these students were from different stereotypes it should’ve actually said that each one is from a different side of the tracks (try about 5 directions) – hell, even different planets! But with the way the movie unfolds – first with their arrival and cracks on one another (more so coming from John Bender than any other character) to succumbing to their natural teenage curiosity of what would happen if we broke a rule or two to sitting around and finally opening up to one another (induced by enjoying some green together) to coming together at the end and declaring themselves The Breakfast Club and giving a big finger to one of the antagonists of the film (Richard Vernon) – the plot is actually found within the task that they have to do while in detention: write a 1000-word essay on who they think they are. The resolution: we are who we are but it’s never going to matter to everyone else because they’re going to see us however they wanna see us, but to us, we are exactly how we see each other: a brain, an athlete, a basketcase, a princess and a criminal. How’s that for a plot?
- Create memorable and relatable characters with great inner conflict: Each of us was one of these characters in high school, and each of us succumbed to the greatest antagonist in teenage-high-school-life: Pressure (from peers and/or family). The kicker to me is that what each of them brought for lunch that day describes, exactly, their personalities.
- Brian Johnson (the brain): Brian gets detention for having a flare gun in his locker…that goes off by accident (cue laughing). The inner conflict that Brian suffers from is that he has super strict parents who continually want him to win academically. When he has trouble succeeding in a project for shop class (the only class he has ever failed), he considers suicide (thus having the flare gun). His character flaw is that he continually tries to fit in and adapt to new people and situations and tries to be the peacemaker amongst the group. In the end it is Brian who writes the essay for Mr. Vernon – addressed from everyone in the group (at the urging of the ‘princess,’ Claire).
- What he brought for lunch: PB & J with the crusts cut off, a thermos of soup, a juice box (apple), and a small snack bag with can be assumes as veggies.
|Anthony Michael Hall|
- Andrew Clark (the athlete): Andrew receives detention because he taped a teammate’s ‘buns’ together in the locker room. Due to the pressure of his father (who was a star athlete in his own time) to always be number one, he does this to try and earn the man’s respect, but confesses to feeling incredibly guilty for having done so to Larry Lester (he says he can’t even imagine the humiliation the kid must’ve felt at telling his own father what happened).
- What he brought for lunch: 3 sandwiches, a large bag of potato chips, a bag of doughnuts, 1/2 gallon of milk, an apple and a banana.
- Allison Reynolds (the basketcase): Allison is the one who did absolutely nothing to get detention. But as it turns out, she actually suffers from the pressure to have attention because her parents don’t give her any at home. She sort of cries out for help with her very first line ‘HA!’ but no one really takes her seriously until they slow down enough for her to open up to them – and they all laugh together at her when she admits to not having anything else better to do than to come to school for eight hours on a Saturday (promptly followed by one of the best montages I’ve ever seen). She and Andrew actually bond a little towards the end and find themselves lip-locked at the end after Claire gives her a makeover. And come on, you have to admit that the mini scene of her finishing up a wintery landscape drawing by shaking her head to add ‘snow’ is actually pretty hysterical.
- What she brought for lunch: A sandwich with mayo (in which she promptly throws the meat over her shoulder), a small bag of captain crunch that she adds to her sandwich after laying a thick layer of salt to the mayo. Everyone watches as she puts this meal together.
- Claire Standish (the princess): Claire is the rich girl with a ‘perfect’ life who receives detention for skipping school to go shopping. She, of course, becomes the #1 target of Bender’s insults. She begins her journey as a shallow person who thinks she’s better than any and every one else there – so yea, she needed to be taken down a notch or two, which is exactly what Bender managed to do in the end (the two of them end up making out a bit). Claire’s pressure is mainly from her friends and she’s not afraid to admit that it’s one of the things she hates the most (and she’s got parent issues going on since her parents were recently divorced). Even though she might still be conceited, I personally believe that her eyes opened the widest at the end (she got beat up pretty bad).
- What she brought for lunch: a sushi platter (to which John replies: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth and you’re gonna eat that?”).
- John Bender (the criminal): Ah, the resident bad boy. Bender gets detention for setting off a false fire alarm and he begins his journey by throwing some hard-core insults at everyone, though mainly at Claire. Bender’s inner angst is that he is the product of an abusive, alcoholic father who actually burned him with a cigar for spilling paint in the garage once and gave him a carton of cigarettes for Christmas (as opposed to the diamond earrings Claire’s father gave her). But when you strip away his cocky, dickhead attitude, you find he’s actually a soft guy underneath that hard exterior who is a product from not only his father but from those around him who have judged him a bit too harshly (Andrew basically tells him at the beginning of the movie that he could disappear from the school and no one would care).
- What he brought for lunch: absolutely nothing
- Create a tagline by skimming the surface of the story: “They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules, bared their souls, and touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.” This tagline barely skates on the surface of the plot but it gives you just enough insight to pull you in and make you wonder how those eight hours would really play out (This movie trailer follows the gist of the tagline, I suggest giving a watch if you’ve never seen this movie).
- Write an ending the story deserves: The end of the movie is pitch perfect and came to a close in the only way it possibly could’ve: with the essay Brian was charged with writing for the group followed by Bender walking home across the football field and freeze-framing on him pumping his fist in the air (after he receives one of Claire’s diamond earrings and puts it in his ear – d’aww) – among other things.
Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong…but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basketcase…a princess…and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.
What about you – have you seen The Breakfast Club? What writing lessons can you pull from this iconic film and incorporate into your own writing? Are there are any other movies (that didn’t sprout from books) that have taught you lessons about the writing craft?