And whenever I’m in need of something to freshen up my writing, I turn to the audio commentaries of my favourite movies. It’s like reading a familiar book with the voice of the author in your head discussing how he worked it all out.
One of the best I've heard is the audio commentary for Toy Story 2 - featuring director John Lasseter, co-directors Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon, and writer Andrew Stanton.
Listening to the Toy Story 2 team discuss how they plotted and schemed, how they played the audience, planting all the set ups, how they tightened the screws and tightened the scenes, the scenes that were shed pretty much evokes what it's like to write a novel.
The fact that Toy Story 2 is a sequel throws up interesting dillemas which might fascinate folks working on their own sequels or trilogies or series.
Like, how do you surprise an audience that knows your characters so well?
How do you remind the reader or audience (in the most economical way) what the key characters care about?
How does a character go forward when he has already completed his arc in the previous episode?
How do you bring back characters from the previous episode without boring exposition, how do you (again, economically) bring these characters in actions and scenes instead of endless boring paragraphs?
Andew Stanton described making a sequel as ‘overwhelming’ because of the seemingly ‘insurmountable goals’ – not least of which was the high expectation that came from having had a successful first episode.
The team had to find ways to reprise what was wonderful in the first story without compromising story in the sequel. For example, how does one bring back the fun of the first Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear, who thought he was a real spaceman and not a toy?
"Half the reason it was so much fun to watch Buzz was that he was deluded," Stanton says. In Toy Story 2, Buzz meets another Buzz Lightyear in a toy store, who is even more deluded than he was in the first Toy Story. The fun begins when the other Buzz swaps places with him and Buzz's friends don't realise they are not with the real Buzz
How do you make an idea fresher, faster, better, more surprising, more exciting, more unexpected?
The humour, the staging, the action and the great visuals ... we knew they would come. But it was that emotion that was so important because what we value is a story in which characters change, in which characters grow. In Toy Story we were very proud of the way Woody and Buzz both grew. And we couldn’t make them go back and get amnesia and grow in the same way again. They had to grow in a different way and that was extremely challenging.
Once a book/film is out, the author/filmmaker gives up ownership of his or her characters. Suddenly, the stakes are higher, because, as John Lassiter says, "These characters don’t belong to us anymore they belong to the world ... We had to do it right. We had to do it great."
It does make you think.
These characters we have been living with and whose lives we’ve been creating all this time? Ultimately, they are not ours to keep.