Literary Agent Kate McKean on What Fiction Writers Can Learn From the Movies

Literary agent Kate McKean shows us how your Netflix queue can teach you 10 important lessons about novel writing. (And here you thought you were just procrastinating . . . )

Earlier, Kate shared the top 10 things agents and editors always want to see from authors.

1. Get the plot moving quickly.
In The Wizard of Oz, it doesn’t take Dorothy very long to get moving down the Yellow Brick Road. The first 10 minutes of the film may be a whirlwind of witches and Munchkins, but Dorothy quickly figures out that the Emerald City is the key to her goal of getting home. Your book, too, should get right down to business with the plot, as early in the narrative as possible, and show the reader the first step on the path to getting there.

2. Your character has to want something—or better yet, more than one thing.
In Sixteen Candles, Sam quietly lusts after hot, hunky Jake Ryan in his fancy red Porsche. Can’t you still just feel her longing for him? But that’s not all—she also wants someone to remember her 16th birthday, despite her sister’s wedding the next day. Two plotlines give a story depth and tension. What’s going to happen next?!, your reader will ask, as you expertly switch back and forth between the two story lines.

3. Don’t forget the stakes.
In the first Back to the Future movie, the stakes are very high. If Marty doesn’t get his parents together at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, HE’LL NEVER BE BORN! If the erasure of one’s existence can’t motivate a character, nothing will. Giving your character something important to fight for will lend your story purpose and keep your reader reading. If your character cares about something important, your reader will, too.

4. Thick dialect is not your friend.
Remember that Guy Ritchie movie Snatch and Brad Pitt’s almost unintelligible Irish Gypsy accent? “Toiksh. Da foit ay twoice da soice.” Come again? That’s what it sounds like when you use too much dialect in your written work, too. It might sound right in your head, but to the rest of us, it’s gibberish. (P.S. Translated, that’s, “Turkish. The fight is twice the size.”)

5. Pay close attention to POV.
Spoiler Alert: in Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden and Ed Norton’s nameless character are the same person. I know! But when you go back and watch the movie, you’ll notice that what Tyler sees and what the narrator sees are the same thing. There’s only one point of view there, and it’s strictly the narrator’s. Go watch it again, and then think about how you’re using POV in your own work. Are you head-hopping? Are you being true to the POV you’ve established?

6. Make it worth it.
If your plot and world-building are complicated and intricate, even if it’s all flashy and interesting and wows the reader—it better pay off in the end. If you don’t know what I mean, watch Inception.

7. Twist it around.
There is perhaps no more famous plot twist than when Darth Vader reveals he’s really Luke Skywalker’s father in Star Wars. Let surprising things happen in your work, too! As long as it makes sense in the world of your book and the reader buys it, don’t be afraid to turn your plot upside down.

8. Let the reader fall in love with your character.
Let’s be honest, Ferris Bueller is kind of a jerk. He gets away with everything. He destroys his best friend’s dad’s fancy car. He wreaks havoc in downtown Chicago. But we still love him. Why? Because he’s charming and funny and we know deep down he’s just an innocent scamp. (Besides being totally adorable, too.) While a sharp quip and a wink won’t get your characters out of a jam all the time, if you can make the reader fall in love with your character, many flaws will be forgiven.

9. Even when the reader knows what’s going to happen, keep them in suspense.
If the Titanic hadn’t sunk in Titanic, the movie would have. <Titanic joke!>. And even though we all knew how it would end, we couldn’t stop watching. Would Rose and Jack survive? Would love conquer all? When you’re crafting your own story, make sure there’s a thread of suspense throughout. Otherwise, your reader will abandon ship.

10. Is it all about you?
Make sure your novel is not a home movie. Is your writing just a way for you to show off and have the stage? Exorcise your demons? Right the wrongs of your past? Do you just want to be a star, the events of your life thinly veiled under cover of “fiction”? I, too, want to get back at that jerk from my English class, but that doesn’t mean readers of my novel care as much as I do about it. Think of the reader as you write, and make sure you consider her entertainment, comfort, and investment—not just your own self-interest.

Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. She tweets at @kate_mckean. She’s writing a YA novel, too, so she feels your pain.

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