Lessons on writing from The Late Night Show
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
“The key is to tell a story that’s as emotionally engaging as possible.” JJ Abrams
The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert this Tuesday featured an interview of the director/producer JJ Abrams. Colbert referred to the Star Trek/Star Wars director as “the consummate storyteller.” And of course, that’s what a good director, like a good author, should be. Movies and books are both made up of the business of storytelling.
I got three takeaways from the interview that apply to writing equally as much as to movie-making:
Emotional connection is key.
Avoid too many lens flares.
Give your audience questions, questions, and then more questions.
Let’s look at each one for a minute.
Emotion. The first is often overlooked by the makers of Hollywood blockbusters and authors alike. I love an action movie as much as the next person, but if you want me to remember the movie five minutes after I walk out of the theater, I need to make that emotional connection with the characters. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but a Trekkie, I am not. However, I really enjoyed JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness for the very reason that for once, we see the unemotional Spock become pretty darn emotional. He’s worried for Captain Kirk, he’s pissed as hell, and he gets, in Spock terms, a little sentimental. I’m not saying it wasn’t a great film otherwise, but the reason I enjoyed it and remember it is because of the unexpected emotion in a Star Trek movie. Visceral emotion connects the audience to a story in a powerful way and that’s why it was the first thing Abrams mentioned in his interview in regard to storytelling.
Lens flares. While the director was talking about cutting out actual lens flares in his movies, I think it’s a reasonable jump to make this mean any flowery, over-the-top narrative or similar tricks of writing that blind the reader to what’s going on, either because the story and emotion is lacking in a scene, or the author is in love with their own pretension. JJ Abrams admitted that his wife, as all good spouses do, called him on his bad habit of lens flares, saying this about it, “There was one scene in Star Trek Into Darkness when you literally couldn’t see what was going on and it was a very important emotional scene.” Don’t blind your readers with a metaphorical lens flare, which is sometimes even more tempting in an emotional scene. If you’re getting carried away with your verbage, just take Colbert’s advice, “It’s like putting on jewelry. Put on everything you want before you go out, look in the mirror and then take off one lens flare.” (Or an unnecessary paragraph of purple prose–I’m sure Stephen would agree.)
Questions??? JJ Abrams was there to discuss his role as producer in 10 Cloverfield Lane and man, does that movie garner some questions. The Late Night Show ran a clip where John Goodman’s character is seen to be holding someone apparently hostage in a bunker. His hostage escapes up some stairs and is trying to open a door to the outside. I love that for once in a horror movie, someone is actually screaming, “Nooooo, no, don’t open the door!” John Goodman screams this as he watches her struggle with the lock, only to have someone’s diseased (?) face appear at the window. I got me some questions. What’s worse for this woman–inside or out? And the movie trailer is even more intriguing. I would say questions are the beads in a long necklace of storytelling, but I’m just going to let JJ Abrams sum it up better than me. “The fun of something..when people go to see a movie…when you’re watching a film, you want the audience to be asking questions, you want people to need to know more…[I]t’s about telling a story that is drawing you deeper into it…[I]t’s what a good story does.” A good story makes the reader ask one question that must be answered by reading further only to be hit by another question and yet another burning question. If not every scene, at least every chapter in your book should be presenting the reader with a new question they MUST answer.
I love it when I get a lesson on writing when I wasn’t expecting it!