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Love, vulnerability and your supporting cast: writing lessons from Stranger Than Fiction

Will Farrell and Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction
Written by M. Amelia Eikli

Wondering what to watch this weekend? The 2006 Will Ferrell flick Stranger than Fiction is a dramatic comedy centred around IRS agent Harold Crick. He lives a predictable life until the day he hears a voice narrating his every move. This movie is not only funny, fascinating and charming, but it also has a few writing lessons in store for you. 

We fall in love with average people

This film is full of average people doing the best they can. Although he does finds himself the main character in someone’s novel, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a relatively boring dude. He has annoying quirks and a trunk full of emotional baggage. This makes us love him, it makes us relate, but most importantly: it makes us recognise the enormity of what would otherwise seem like very small acts.

The takeaway:

The fact is, most of us – and most of your readers – are average people. We are small individuals in a big world, and many of us dream of being important. Characters like Harold show us that we are; that it’s the little things that make us unique and the little things that make us interesting.

In Stranger than Fiction, pay special attention to:

  • any scene involving guitars
  • how Harold acts and behaves while on public transport
  • how he reacts to new information in every interaction with the literature professor.

Romance takes courage and vulnerability

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two central characters despise each other at first glance, they will end up snogging, at least once. However, where most characters build up to the snog through baffling swoop-and-rescues and dramatic clashes, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harold approach each other through a number of awkward attempts at small talk and vulnerability. It is charming, it is cringe-worthy, and it feels right.

The takeaway:

Sweeping romances full of grand gestures can be a great escape from the overfilled laundry basket and the realisation that both you and your partner forgot your anniversary again. But allowing your characters to approach each other as scared people, people who fear rejection and loss in the same way as we – the readers – do, allows you to add a deeper level to your plot. When watching the movie, keep this in mind: if the romance had taken place on a stormy sea, no one would have noticed the impact of a pebble.

In Stranger than Fiction, pay special attention to:

  • every time Ana or Howard smile and what the smiles mean
  • how small the grand gestures are
  • the narrator’s comments on Harold’s inner fantasies.

Supporting characters deserve full lives

Although the lives of the supporting characters – the author, her assistant, the literature professor, the coworker – aren’t explicitly shown, we learn a lot about them. We learn about their lives through what they wear, how they talk and what’s on their walls, but also through things as simple as what circumstances we meet them in.

The takeaway:

This is great advice for the cast of your novel, too. There is rarely a good time for lengthy exposition and in-depth explanations about everything a character has done before this moment, but have your protagonist or narrator reflect on the number of diplomas on their wall, or the banana peel on the floor next to their bin, and we’ve automatically been given a lot of information with very few words.

In Stranger than Fiction, pay special attention to:

  • the different settings and situations in which we see the literature professor
  • the differences between the author’s personality and her surroundings
  • the author’s methods throughout the film
  • Ana and Harold’s apartments
  • every scene with Emma Thompson.

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