Bestseller Writing Secrets From “White House Down”

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One of the best (and simplest) ways to learn the secrets of bestseller writing is to study successful stories – novels, short stories, plays, scripts…and yes, even watch tv and movies. Story is story. While the medium and some of the techniques differ, writers can glean great insights into bestseller writing from stories of all kinds.

Take, for instance, the movie, White House Down, starring Channing Tatum as aspiring secret service agent, Cale and Jamie Foxx an ultra cool Commander in Chief, Sawyer. The plot is tantalizingly similar to Olympus Has Fallen (another great movie), albeit with a humorous slant. For the record, I recommend the movie for both writing techniques and pure entertainment (My wife, on the other hand, may have had another motivation for watching…cough.. Channing Tatum…cough, cough).

*Fair Warning: My notes below may give away crucial plot points about the movie. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to save this post (Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook) and go rent the flick. 

As I watched White House Down, here are some of the takeaway”secrets”: 

  •  Create Realistic (but awesome) Heroes who break the action story stereotype. Tatum plays a dad struggling to reconnect with his daughter and who aspires to be a secret service agent. Sure, he has military experience (which will come in very handy later), but he dropped out of college and has a history of failed responsibilities. He’s flawed, but it an understandable, likable way. We root for him from the start. 
  • Employ Humor at Pivotal Points: Some of the most memorable scenes in this “action flick” stick because of the humor. An example is the rocket launcher scene. President Sawyer shoots a rocket launcher at the bad guys while hanging out of the presidential limo window. When he sits back in the limo, this little piece of dialogue gold occurs: Cale (who is driving) says, “Where’s the rocket launcher?” Sawyer: “I lost it.” Cale: “How do you lose a rocket launcher?!”
  • Shatter Expectations: In several scenes, the characters do the exact opposite of what viewers/readers expect. Near the end of the movie, a desperate government connects the lead bad guy to his wife, ostensibly to encourage him to stop. We’ve seen this in countless stories and movies. It makes sense for a wife to try to stop her husband from taking over the White House and killing innocent people. But the writer’s of White House Down courted our expectations and then used them against us when the wife says, “You’re doing this for (our son)? Then do whatever you have to do.” It’s shocking and believable and totally memorable.
  • Show Us Something New: The movie is full of new things we haven’t seen before. A car chase around the White House? Sure. The President shooting a rocket launcher out of the presidential limo. Why not?

 These insights are just the “low-hanging fruit” of what you can discover as you watch, enjoy and study successful stories. 

How can you apply these insights to your own stories? Consider these tips…

  1. Create Memorable Characters Who Defy Expectations. Think about or write down the general expectations or assumptions for the characters you have created. How can you add a layer of surprise? What are your characters foibles and flaws? What about strengths? Passions? Secrets? In White House Down, the president is down to earth and “cool”. Expectations defied. 
  2. Employ Strategic Humor: Look at your dialogue, especially in crucial (big) scenes. Is there any humor? Can you add some without taking anything away from the scene? Try to add humor to five pieces of dialogue in your story. See how it works, how it feels. 
  3. Shatter Reader Expectations: Take four to six of your scenes and consider what readers would assume to happen. Then do the opposite. See how it works. You might just surprise yourself. 
  4. Show Us Something New: Study your scenes (especially the big scenes that hold your story together). How can you surprise and delight the reader? How can you use the characters, situation and location to show us something new and different and memorable? Your readers will love you for it. 

 

Ok, it’s your turn. What amazing writing lessons have you learned from watching popular movies? 

(Hey, and while you’re thinking of what to say, why not hit the “follow” button).

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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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