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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Happy Birthday: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan was born on July 30, 1970. A filmmaker and screenwriter, Nolan is best known for his Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises).

Like most people, I discovered Nolan by watching Memento. This backwards-timeline noir is an intricate puzzle that keeps you thinking and guessing until the end (beginning?). I love the film and have watched every film of Nolan's since. There was something about him that I couldn't put my finger on until I read a quote about Nolan not being an artist, like most directors, but instead an architect, carefully building each film, knowing each twist and turn.

And that is why I like him: his films are structured so beautifully. He once said there wouldn't be a director's cut of his films because every scene fulfills a purpose. To me, no film matches that statement more than The Prestige. Every scene in a movie (or book, for that matter) should fulfill one of three purposes: move the plot forward, reveal character, or set up future situations. No scene, almost no line of dialogue, is wasted in The Prestige. In the beginning, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) declares he can do a magic trick no one else can. It is true because he has a twin brother. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) casually tells his girlfriend he changed his name so not to embarrass his family; you find later he is the wealthy Lord Caldlow. How would a wealthy family want to be associated with a magician? All these clues and more are woven so well into the narrative they are easy to miss but so important.
The ending may be shocking, but when you go back and watch it again and realize every clue was there, even in supposedly throwaway lines, you see how beautifully that story is structured. Nolan's stories aren't painted, they are built.

I am trying to follow his formula in my work. I need to go through my stories and cut out the fluff and fat. For authors wanting to make their stories leaner, more muscular, and to have purpose, I'd suggest studying Nolan's films. I saw an excellent post about how Inception avoids the information dump common to many SF stories by weaving the needed details into the narrative. Read it here.

Whether it's old time London, Gotham City, or Cobb's psyche, Christopher Nolan is a master architect. Any storyteller, visual or prose, could use his work as an example of how to build a compelling narrative.

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