Friday, December 5, 2008

Learning from Movies

(photo courtesy of

'Tis the season! For ELF!

Around my house, the movie ELF can be seen year around. My daughter loves it. I love it. We have memorized many scenes. After a whole Thanksgiving weekend of watching ELF several times, sometimes back-to-back showings, I began to recognize some things that can be useful to writers.

Goal & Motivation - Buddy the Elf learned he was a human, only an adopted elf, and his real dad lived in New York City.

Conflict - Buddy's dad didn't know Buddy existed.
- And Buddy's dad was on the Naughty List!

Buddy was thrown out of the Empire State Building (conflict) where his father worked. He crossed the street to Gimbell's, a department store with it's very own North Pole. He met another human who appreciated elf-culture - her name was Jovie - and learned she had the most beautiful singing voice Buddy had ever heard. However, Jovie, didn't like to sing in front of other people (a conflict, which plays out later in the movie). Buddy pointed out to her "the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear." This is a motivation that will also play out later in the movie.

Buddy finally meets his father's wife and son, a family with issues of their own, who welcome him into their lives and are infected by Buddy's innocent Christmas spirit.

Fast forward to the end of the movie - a major spoiler if you haven't seen the movie ELF - Buddy's at the lowest point of his life. His Dad has rejected him. Buddy doesn't feel that he truly belongs anywhere. All of the sudden, out of the black, starry night, Santa flies down, his sleigh and reindeer out of control. He lands somewhere in Central Park. The Central Park Rangers are after Santa, miffed they were put on the Naughty List and determined to nail Santa once and for all (conflict for Santa).

Buddy takes on the task of repairing the engine on Santa's sleigh, while Buddy's brother and father do all they can to deter the Central Park Rangers and encourage their fellow New Yorker's Christmas spirit.

Enter Jovie, Buddy's girlfriend, who comes to the Park to help Buddy and ends up leading everyone with the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" which ends up helping to boost the spirit meter and helps Santa's sleigh fly. Then, Buddy's father ends up joining in the chorus which saves Santa's sleigh and finally lifts Buddy and Santa into flight.

The story of Buddy saving Christmas comes full circle and Buddy lives happily ever after as a successful children's author. (No wonder I love this movie!)

That's a long way to come around to say this story can serve as a good frame for our own stories. Yes, it establishes good old goal, motivation and conflict. But it planted seeds early on in the story, that are fulfilled in the final scenes. When you watch the movie for the first time, you're just along for the ride. You think it's sweet this goofy Elf has a love interest in the slightly dysfunctional Jovie, who you think is quite charming. Then at the end you're cheering her on when she makes the decision to put aside her fear of singing in public to help Buddy, who she's obviously fallen in love with!

And Buddy's father - good ole bad boy James Caan - is the key to saving Santa's sleigh when he finally sings along and redeems himself. I'd say he's instantly off the Naughty List.

It's a movie of fun and games, but has an underlying message of innocence and truth and true love that is key to this season and should be key in our everyday lives.

But what I want to point out, is we need to know our stories inside and out. We need to know our characters even deeper than that. Every character in our story has a purpose. That's probably why we need to write out the first draft, no holds barred, and then go back and revise many times. Layering is important because that's where those seeds come in early on and lead to the AH HA moment at the end of the book. This is the stuff that keeps us reading authors over and over, when they deliver on goods like this. We want to be swept away into a magical land, sometimes just a land or life different from our own, and be moved by someone else's experience for just a moment.

What movie or book have you read lately that left a lasting impression? Maybe you find yourself repeating a phrase your favorite character spoke. Maybe you want to write a book that leaves a lasting impression that you've received from some of your favorite authors. Share! I love to learn about movies and books others love, sometimes they're ones I love too.


  1. Some great insight, Christy. And from ELF no less. LOL! We love that movie too :-)

  2. OMG. ELF. I love that movie. it's hysterical. During the holiday season, that movie brings me so much laughter, it's great.

    As for movies leaving a lasting impression, right now, it's ELF, just because of the season. But in general, I have a few movies I turn to, just because they make me feel good.

    -- Sixteen Candles. I mean, talk about teenage angst. So not self confident...doubts everythng, feels ugly, unlovable, etc. Then, she gets the guy in the end. How cool is that?

    I write YA, so I tend to lean toward the younger type movies and books.

    --The YA series from TED DEKKER....Infidel, chosen....there are four. I've only read the first two, but I LOVE how the young protag starts out soooo not self confident...then, as he grows in his faith, seeks out God's will, he gets so strong and confident.

    I LOVE stories like that. They rock my world. I hope, someday, that through my writing some young person will find hope and excitement while reading how my protag started out as a young, angry, foul-mouth, tattooed, teen who morphed into a confident, strong, godly person, because of her faith.

  3. Hi Christy,
    Great post. Right now I'm trying to study Twilight. But it's still at the movies and that's expensive.So I'll study more when it's on DVD.
    Since I write romance I'm trying to determine exactly how we know at the end of the move that--(somewhat of a spoiler) Edward and Bella would die for each other. No questions asked.
    There is conflict--well, he's a vampire---there is angst---he can't read her mind like he can everyone else in the world---he's cute---I would say hot but he's young and I'm old and i could get in trouble. I'll leave hot for the young girls to say---he's truly her knight in shining armor and we believe every second he can't live without her---amazing.
    I'll have to watch Elf. I haven't seen it but your recap makes me want to. I'll check it out.

  4. Oh, I love Elf!!! We've watched it a gazillion times, too. I'll have to analyze it more next time. (really fun for my kids). :)

    Lynn, I'll have to watch Sixteen Candles. Beleive it or not, I don't remember ever seeing it!

    And Twighlight... what can I say? the whole conflict of whether or not he'll kiss her or bite her neck... Too yummy! :)

  5. Mindy,
    I thought of your own elf when I was writing my post. Your elf is so cute!

  6. Lynn,
    I LOVE Sixteen Candles!!!! One of my all time faves and I have loved it since I was a teen.

    I guess I'm way out of the loop, but I didn't know Ted Dekker writes YA. Very interesting. I'll have to check out some of those books.

  7. Lindi,
    I'm still trying to read Twilight. I had a hard time getting into it. But a friend of mine said the same thing happened to her and at some point she couldn't put the book down. That will definitely be a good book/movie to study.

  8. Missy,
    You'll have to pick up sixteen candles - Molly Ringwald, and so many others that were really popular inthe 80s. I bet you've seen it before. Wasn't it a John Walsh movie? Am I wrong about that? John was the producer and produced ALOT of great ones. My husband actually likes Pretty in Pink, although that wasn't one of my faves. I loved the Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles - 16 candles the bEST! Talk about angst and conflict! and it had some twists to the story that were good, not to mention some parts that were down right funny.