The Writer's Den

UCLA's creative writing student group


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Whack Yourself in the Head: A Fun Creative Exercise

Having trouble coming up with a new story?  Find yourself fumbling around with ideas but unable to settle on one?  Do you think you’re just not creative enough?  Well listen up fellow denmates, cuz this one’s for you.

So I read this totally, amazingly, fabulous book last year called, A Whack on the Side of the Head:  How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger Von Oech, a consultant who has worked with major companies like IBM, Apple, Disney, Sony, and Intel to help make them more creative.

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How are you with Death Scenes?

One of the most amazing parts about spending time with students far younger than you is their surprising ability to draw your attention to details you might not have noticed otherwise. This past year at Columbus Middle School, I was forced (on a seemingly weekly basis) to examine an important element of writing I had never thought much about before: character death.

One of the reasons that these kids’ stories drew so much attention to the subject was because of the seemingly arbitrary and indiscriminate nature of the deaths.

Story about a girl who dreams of becoming a superstar? BAM. Dad is killed.

Story about a new student in high school? BAM. Both parents dead.

Story about a zombie apocalypse? BAM. Millions eaten.

(Okay, maybe that last example doesn’t quite fit with the others…)

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How Screenwriting Made Me a Better Novelist

Now, I’ll have to admit, when I was first introduced to screenplays, I thought they were pretty lame. All dialogue. Almost no description. The page looked practically naked. Empty. Without the stylistic adornments and embellishments of fine literature. I turned up my snooty nose, tossing page upon page of screenplay away, swearing that I would only ever write novels.

Now, several years later, after writing a few screenplays of my own and gaining a little bit more maturity (I hope), I’ve come to realize that screenwriting and novel writing are not that different. Readers, after all, are just like a movie audience: they’re both sitting there expecting a story to be told to them. The only difference is that readers experience the story playing out inside their heads instead of up on the big screen.

Recently, then, I’ve been approaching my novels in a cinematic way. And I can’t tell you how much I think my writing has improved. Here are just a few of the lessons that I learnt about novel writing from screenwriting.

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The Moment

Some stories draw me in right away. From the first page I’m plunged into a high-stakes adventure or an intense drama. They’re the books I pick up to fill an hour and end up staying for two, then three, then four hours. I tell myself I’ll read only a few more pages…then a few more…and a few more…until I realize it’s two in the morning and I’ve just spent the whole day in a chair instead of doing other somewhat important things.*

Other stories start out slow. They seem to drag on, taking their own sweet time to set up for the real action.  It gets to the point where I’m only continuing to read because I have this point of pride where I finish every book I start.**

Then, suddenly—BAM. I can’t put it down. Continue reading