Right before I begin writing any major-length work, I do some important “stretching” exercises. No, not writing exercises; I do those nearly every day of the year regardless of what other projects I’m working on. This exercise is picking some DVDs off my shelves and queuing up a few key scenes that get me in the mood to tackle writing a novel. I don’t watch the whole movie (I usually don’t have the time), only a specific scene that does something to the synapses in my brain and makes me want to charge at the word processor and start slugging.
My list of favorite “inspiration scenes” has grown over the years, adding new films and picking up fresh selections from older ones. Most of these scenes are action pieces (considering what I like to write, this makes sense, but any sort of energy is beneficial for a writer) with a few odd bits mixed in.
Here are the scenes I have turned to over the last few years during the crazy days before I typed “Chapter One”:
Van Helsing Roasts the Count in Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958)
I’ve read too many works of speculative fiction where the author dreamed up a fantastic opening and middle, but decided to go on lazy holiday for the finale. The boffo close-out of Terence Fisher’s wild and colorful adaptation of Dracula, which forever fixed Hammer Film Productions and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the horror movie firmament, always reminds me that “good enough” is not good enough! If you’re going to slay the King of the Undead, don’t just execute a bland staking: roast the sucker, forcing him screaming and shrieking and crumbling to dust into a ray of sunlight. If I don’t have a finale for my book with this kind of excitement planned, I am not trying hard enough.
Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981)
This film caused the spark that turned into my love for fantasy, so watching any scene from it reminds me why I got into this crazy fiction-writing game in the first place. Most of the time, the only scene I need to watch to rekindle that childhood enthusiasm is the stunning confrontation with Medusa, arguably the finest special-effects work ever from Ray Harryhausen. The scene concludes with a stirring shot of Perseus stumbling from the ruins and holding aloft the gorgon’s severed head to the skies in exhausted exultation… like a struggling novelist crawling from the underworld with his chthonic new masterpiece clutched in his hand, ready to show to the world (and hopefully not turn them to stone).
Two-Face Face-Off from The Dark Knight
The most recent addition to my gallery. It might strike some readers as odd that the scene I turn to from the hit Batman film doesn’t contain the anarchic Joker, and isn’t even an action scene. The moment that I return to again and again is the tense stand-off in a scorched warehouse between Batman, Commissioner James Gordon, and Harvey Dent, now fallen into the depraved “Two-Face” character. The dramatic charge of the scene and slow pounding build of the score all make it gripping, but it’s the acknowledgment of how much a character can change over the course of a story that makes it a novel-writing favorite. Harvey Dent started the story as a White Knight, but by the finale I seriously believe he is seconds away from blowing off the head of a ten-year-old boy.
Siege of Gondor / Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The biggest medieval battle scene ever lensed. Swooping Nazgûl. Super-elephant (Mûmakil) charges. From my favorite novel. No need for complete sentences.
The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The “ecstasy” of the title (actually, the name of Ennio Morricone’s music cue that accompanies it) is one that any writer will understand: those moments of perfect madness where you plow forward in a total daze, not sure if you’re getting near your goal, or even what you’re doing, but knowing you just have to keep going. Just like Tuco (Eli Wallach) running in circles through an army of crosses marking the dead, searching for one grave that’s a golden jackpot.
Title Sequence from Moonraker
Huh? I picked a 007 film, but I didn’t select an action sequence? This one is highly personal, since the first novel I ever finished originated out of an idea that came to me while watching Maurice Binder’s elegant “zero-gravity” choreography of nude female silhouette flitting around space imagery to the exotic warbling of Shirley Bassey. This credits montage transports me every time into a great creative mode. But I have to shut off the DVD immediately afterward, before I land back in the most Chuck Jones of all James Bond movies. . . .
The Creation from Bride of Frankenstein
I could spin you a metaphor about how Doctors Frankenstein and Pretorius represent the mad artist in the throes of creating a new “fictional” creature, a bride for his or her previous nascent ideas, but that would be total swill. The appeal for me is totally visceral. The scene is a spectacular of lights and sound and music and great sizzling lab equipment that makes me wish I could go blow something up by throwing a few hundred switches labeled “Do Not Throw This Switch.”
“You Don’t Mind Talking about It, Do You, Dave?” from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Because, when you think action packed, you think 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? And especially any scene where a man calmly discusses shipboard issues with a machine represented by a single red light. HAL-9000’s most famous scene comes when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) starts disconnecting it; that’s a brilliant and heartbreaking moment, but it’s not the one I skip to on the DVD when I want a jolt of writing inspiration. Instead, I go to this one: Dave shows some of his sketches of the sleeping crewmembers to HAL, and HAL in turn tries to explain to Dave, as best as it can, its concerns about the mission. Why do I find this scene so inspiring? It’s an excellent example of how simple dialogue and small touches of character can say so much and remain absolutely riveting—even though nobody so much as raises their voice above “library talk” level.
Kong vs. the Tyrannosaurid from King Kong (1933)
The “triple V. Rex” battle from the 2005 re-make is damn electrifying, but it’s impossible to beat the thrill I get from Willis O’Brien’s original staging of the giant ape wrestling a carnosaur. I’ve seen the scene hundreds of times, and it never fails to leave me ready to conquer the world.
Tanker Chase from Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior
The other entries on the this list I put down in more or less random order, but I slotted this one last because it is unquestionably my favorite: the ultimate cure for “I don’t think I can do this” blues. The chase in the desert is long enough to feel like a “mini-movie” on its own, and its raw edge and final climactic head-on collision create a better adrenalin rush than all the coffee ever brewed and all the energy drinks ever canned. It’s my can’t-fail kick-in-rear to get-to-that-book sequence.
Anybody else have “novel booster” movie scenes they’d like to share?