Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things Christopher Nolan Taught Me About Writing

What can I say? I’ve been a fan of Batman since I was barely out of diapers, and so of course I have mad respect for the brilliant Christopher Nolan. And yesterday was his birthday, so the post is totally valid.

Now, calm down, I’m not going to spend this entire post worshipping the ground he floats over. I think he’s a great writer/director, but I don’t mean to put him on a pedestal. Today, I’m going to focus on his methods and their effects. Pull on your capes and cowls and join me, won’t you?

1.      Respect your characters. This, above all, is what I think what made the Nolan Batman films (and hell, The Prestige and Inception, while we’re talking about the subject) so successful. It sounds rudimentary and obvious, but unfortunately in today’s world, this concept is not mandatory. Want proof? Three little words: X-Men Origins Wolverine. Did that send chills up your spine? It should have. If you do not respect your characters, you get things like the Merc with the Mouth getting his mouth sewn shut, one of the most bad ass characters of all time turned into a whiny love-struck kitten, adamantium bullets that cause frickin’ amnesia, and an entire sea of pissed off comic book fans who swear off of your movies for life. Nolan taught me to take my time, spread open a character, and examine them from top to bottom with a creepy Dr. Zoidberg kind of patience. With each of the three Batman films, Nolan paid attention to the various traits that made up Bruce Wayne, Alfred J. Pennyworth, and an assortment of other characters from the Batman comics. He incorporated different versions of the characters and streamlined them into the incarnations we watched on screen. If a writer does their homework and creates a three-dimensional character, people—in their key demographic and sometimes beyond it—will show up. Guaranteed.
2.      The devil’s in the details. An old phrase, but a good ‘un. Nolan’s scripts have always been filled to the brim with details. Hell, that’s why he waited ten years before deciding to film Inception. The story is that he kept it in a drawer for years and chipped away at it until he finally came out with something he liked and thought would work. Details help fill in the spaces that a writer might not notice are there. It can be dialogue, it can be setting, it can be backstory, anything. It can also be easy to pack in too many and lose focus, but that is something I learned as I edited my first novel. Details and editing seem to be natural enemies, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, think of all the little things in The Prestige that added up over time. The story left us tiny clues that eventually congealed with the tremendous reveal at the end of the film. It was still a lengthy running time, but the film never felt long because the details kept us hanging on the edge of our seats. Details should help the reader invest, keep them interested, and move the story along.
3.      Realism is a double-edged sword. Some fiction excels because it has the ability to take a ludicrous concept and make us believe it. This idea is one of the reasons why the Nolan Batman films broke barriers. While Tim Burton’s version was certainly entertaining, it existed in its own bizarre plane of existence. And don’t get me started on Joel Schumacher’s versions. (Mind you, I enjoyed Batman Forever for all its cheesiness, but I’m not disillusioned that it’s not really Batman. And Batman & Robin is In Name Only.) Nolan was the first to take the hero and apply him to modern times—our cinematography, our technology, and our current social and ethic standards. It worked. It flourished. It made us believe that it could happen. However, this concept cannot always be applied to every hero. It’s here that I put on my critic hat. I thought Man of Steel was pretty good, but one of its biggest flaws was that they took the realism concept too far. Actually, one of my friends put it into perspective perfectly. Heard of ItsJustSomeRandomGuy? (Insert shameless Name Drop Here) His biggest criticism of the film was that it wasn’t fun. I agree. Man of Steel was a lot of things, but I never got the sense of fun that I feel is absolutely essential to the character of Clark Kent. Superman is meant to inspire. He’s someone to look up to. The realism in MoS was an admirable attempt, but it took away the wonder that Superman should instill in the audience. He was much more cynical and harder edged than I felt he should have been. There is a reason they call him the Big Blue Boy Scout. I didn’t want to give him a merit badge by the end of the movie, and that’s a crying shame. So, when writing, realism should be a guiding light, but not the main focus. Many novelists can write realistic characters, plots, and stories, but Nolan’s work has taught me that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Lighten up. Fiction operates under the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. We can accept a lot under that creed—even that a man can fly.
4.      If you truly love your work, someone else will love it too. Now, this is subjective. Loving your work and vanity projects are NOT the same thing. For instance, most people agree that Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a vanity project. Loving your work means investing fully into everything in it—cinematography, script, casting the actors, dialogue, soundtrack, all of it. It is for this reason that Inception was such a big hit. It took a concept that might be a bit hard for the Average Joe to accept and turned into a terrific story that also made quite a good bit of cash. Nolan spoke in interviews and commentary how he sat on the project for so long, and that is a labor of love. We have all seen movies and read books that were rushed. It steals a lot from a story if you don’t take the time to sweat, cry, and gnash your teeth over it like a misbehaving toddler. I believe that if someone truly pours passion and devotion into their writing, someone else will respond with the same amount of passion and devotion. It may not happen immediately, it may not be across the board, but love of writing cultivates love of reading.

So thanks, Mr. Nolan, for your tireless work. We look forward to seeing more of it.



  1. So I haven't watched any of the Batman movies, but I did grow up on the original Batman & Robin (Ka-Boom!)

    I must also say that after reading all the way through #3 above and seeing no mention of "Racism," I re-read the header and realized it said "Realism." I put my glasses on and finished the post. Another great read.

  2. Well, to each her own, but I must say that as someone who's loved Batman since she was knee-high, Nolan's films do the character an immense amount of justice, and you really don't have to love Batman to enjoy them. It's just great filmmaking. And you don't have to believe me--believe the numbers. 'The Dark Knight' is the fourth highest grossing film of all time in the states. Them numbers don't lie.

    Lol. Thank you, madam.

  3. Enjoyed this very much. Awesome blog!