Sunday, August 25, 2013

What YA. Writers Can Learn from Summer Blockbusters

I've always seen more movies at the theater than the average person, in fact, I think I internalized, early in my development as a human, that sitting beside a person in a movie theater was the best sort of companionship. Having been through some extreme personal upheaval and heartbreak in 2013, I've found movies, even ones that I had little to no expectation of being blown away, as a great distraction from daily life. Movies I've seen in 2013?

The Croods 
Monsters University 
Despicable Me 2 
Iron Man 3 
Great Gatsby 
The Hangover 3 
The Wolverine 
Pacific Rim 
World War Z 
Oz the Great and Powerful 
Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters
Star Trek 
City of Bones

Things you should know about me personally and my movie choices. 1. I have children. I see lots of kids' movies. Often, the kids movies have been far superior to adult movies (How to Train Your Dragon, Up, Megamind, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). That was not the case this year, though the kids movies were enjoyable enough, none of them blew my mind. 2. I like science fiction. I just really really do. I've always said that fantasy was my favorite genre for books and SF was my favorite for movies, that is evolving with the genres, but I will always love a good science fiction movie, and particularly enjoyed Elysium. 3. Someone important in my life likes superhero movies. I'm getting a little tired of them myself, but what can I say? 

Here is what I, as a YA writer, took from my movie going summer. 

1. High Concept is still important.  This article discusses why Hunger Games and Harry Potter and Twilight did so much better at the box office than Beautiful Creatures while speculating about the success of Mortal Instruments; City of Bones and the upcoming Divergent. One of the things they focus on is they trailers' ability or inability to make audiences understand the concept quickly. As a teacher of reluctant readers, I can't tell you how important that is. To be able to pull a book off a shelf and get a student interested in the idea...and before the book gets to the library shelves it passes through tons of gatekeepers who are looking for the same thing. No one is saying that the initial concept is all the book is about, in fact, part of the mystique will this intriguing concept play out. One of my favorite high concept examples is What if Dinosaurs DNA could be used to recreate dinosaurs and a theme park know it's not going to work out really well, how could it? But how will things go bad? How will characters try to salvage the situation or save themselves? I hope that the marketing for Divergent gets the high concept thing right, because I liked Mortal Instruments (less than the books but still....) and I don't think it's doing very well at the box office. 

Regardless of the advertising (or box office) this movie poster is fantastic! 

2. Don't lose track of the Individual Struggle within the story. I found this article  really fascinating, particularly that 'big" movies have to save the world, but that audiences respond to individual stories. 

One of the compelling descriptions that I've heard of the difference between YA and MG is that a MG character can focus on saving the world, while a YA character has to save the world WHILE figuring out who they are within the context of that world. Too often the big stories focus on story rather than character, and it's nice to know that sometimes audiences would rather see character, I'd love to see even more character development in blockbuster movies (crosses fingers and hopes for Ender's Game to be one of those movies). As YA writers, of course we never lose track of characters, or at least we try not to!

3. Diversity- You don't have to be a white guy to be a hero. YA literature is doing really well in this regard, in fact some critics have pinpointed the lack of male heroes in a world of Katniss, Tris, Clary Fray etc. But in the world of the megaplex the white male rules supreme. (I read a statistic that in 2013 women had 20% of the speaking roles in movies. 20%!!!!)  Current YA has a lot of girl power, but is still more than predominantly white, and predominantly heterosexual. I think throwing in diverse characters for the sake of diversity is a bad idea...but being aware of the issue and finding ways to work diversity into stories is an important goal. 

4. People like to be entertained. It's the bottom line--why our books get published. Books and movies have sustained me through some of the worst times in my life, and I know how important they are. Literature (and movies) give us context and meaning for tragedy and triumph. But, while I'm appalled that women don't have bigger roles, while I'm worried that some of my favorite books will be turned into abysmal movies (*cough Time Traveller's Wife *cough). While it's annoying to see colorful movies with nothing but action continually outsell more thought provoking movies, I think the thing to take from this very successful summer blockbuster season is that storytelling is still alive, that consumers all over the world want to be told stories, and that we, as authors must get to work to provide those stories! 

Happy Writing!


Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks, Bethany! Thanks for the links to the articles and now I have a go-to list for movies. Just saw Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters with my daughter - Rick Riordin knows how to craft a story!

Lisa Tapp said...

Thanks for sharing, Bethany.