Thursday, May 1, 2014

Top 5 Lessons Writers can Learn from The Shawshank Redemption (Film)

Photo by quiddle from Flickr
If you haven't seen The Shawshank Redemption (film), you're missing out on one of the most successful prison movies of all time. The movie centers on Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker accused of killing his wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to life in prison and during his time there he meets Red (Morgan Freeman), along with a whole cast of unforgettable characters. Andy focuses on something that the other inmates do not dare touch: hope. He hopes to one day see "the outside," but his prison mates see things differently. I think that's a decent brief synopsis. You should know there are SPOILERS below, so go watch the movie (if you haven't already) before continuing to read...


OK, now I'm assuming if you're reading this far you've watched the movie. Here are the top 5 lessons writers can learn from The Shawshank Redemption movie.

1. Hope is universal. Yes, the film is primarily set in a male prison, but this is not a movie for men. Everyone on the planet can relate to the movie because everyone on the planet either secretly hopes or openly hopes for something. In this case, Andy hopes to remove himself from his situation. Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, hope is a universal topic that you shouldn't hesitate to tackle. The same is true for love and death, among others.

2. Everyone has felt trapped in some sense. Again, they're all male inmates but women can relate to this message in the movie. The men are literally incarcerated but don't we all build figurative prisons around us? Some of us work jobs that we hate, spend time with people we don't necessary like, etc. I bet you can think of a few ways you build bars around you... You'd do well as a writer to tap into the natural human feeling of being trapped. I believe it's a terrible feeling that everyone experiences at some point.

3. Each person reacts uniquely. There's nothing worse (okay, maybe that's not true) than watching a film or reading a book in which the characters seem to act or react the same way to a certain set of circumstances. In the The Shawshank Redemption, every single inmate (that we get to know) reacts uniquely to their prison stay. As I noted earlier, Andy hopes to get out. Red has become the "guy who can get things." Brooks, the elderly inmate, has embraced the prison walls and doesn't want to leave. Those are three major examples I can think of.  As a writer, make sure to use conflict to show how dissimilar each character really is. Just like in real life, each person tends to react differently to conflict and dire circumstances.

4. In fiction, the setting isn't as important as the characters. I have to be honest and tell you that I've watched Shawshank probably about a hundred times and each time I discover something new. But one thing that always sticks out to me: The prison itself isn't nearly as intriguing or memorable as the characters. Sure, the prison plays a role but the characters make this film! Fiction, in my opinion, should be character-driven. The characters should move the story along. This means that your characters should evolve and change and move toward a goal or goals, prompting the story to evolve and change. The characters should generally be well-rounded, three dimensional characters. They should have flaws. I can't name any flawless characters in Shawshank. Even Andy (the main character who is innocent, as we know!) admits that he was a bad husband and feels somewhat responsible for pushing his wife into the arms of another man. He also admits that he's a hard man to get to know...

5. Bad guys should be complicated. It's safe to say that Warden Norton is the major antagonist in this film. The Warden is a Bible-thumping and Bible-quoting bad guy who, in his position, should be a good guy (to the right people, he looks and acts like a good guy...but it's an act). He's there to oversee the prison and to be THE authority figure, but he's incredible corrupt. He shows flashes of goodness, by protecting Andy and allowing him to build the library but he only does these things to keep Andy just content enough to continue doing Norton's dirty work (i.e. cooking his books). Norton, as you know, allows Andy to tutor a young inmate, Tommy, but then Norton ultimately has Tommy shot and killed. Norton also does everything in his power to keep Andy in prison despite the fact that Andy has discovered proof that could exonerate him.

Whether you choose self-publishing as your route to publication or traditional publishing, I believe the above writing lessons will be beneficial. They might even possibly improve your writing skills. Good luck!

(Interested in self-publishing? You might want to consider MindStir Media, rated by many as the best among self publishing companies)

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