Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Sophie, a young hatmaker, lives a lonely and seemingly boring life. On her way to visit her sister Lettie, she encounters a wizard named Howl with a reputation for eating the hearts of beautiful girls--I wasn’t sure if that was metaphorical or literal at that point. When she returns home, she meets the Witch of the Waste who transforms her into a ninety-year-old woman, seemingly because she’s obsessed with Howl and upset at his attention to Sophie. Seeking to break the curse, Sophie leaves home and sets off through the countryside. She finds Howl's moving castle, a giant magical hodgepodge of a house that walks on mechanical/magical legs. Here she meets Howl's young apprentice Markl and a fire demon named Calcifer, who is the source of the castle's magic and movement, who makes a deal with Sophie to break her curse if she breaks his link with Howl.
Howl's life is somehow bound to Calcifer's, and Howl has been transforming into a bird-like creature to interfere with both sides of an ongoing war, but each transformation makes it more difficult for him to return to human form. When Howl has to leave to defend their little group in the war,Sophie then moves everyone out of the house and removes Calcifer from the fireplace, which collapses the castle. Sophie falls down a chasm and is separated from the group. Following the charmed ring Howl gave her, Sophie sees a young Howl catch a falling star – Calcifer – and give him his heart. Sophie calls for them to find her in the future as she is teleported away. She returns to the present, finds Howl, and they reunite with the others. Sophie places Howl's heart back inside him, reviving him and freeing Calcifer, who decides to stay. Sophie's curse is broken, though her hair remains white, which I took as a sign of her character development/transformation. Howl and Sophie are both renewed and they travel away with their friends--and the old Witch of the Waste for some reason--in a new flying castle.
Jeni: Carly, what’d you think about the movie?
Carly: Okay, I love this movie. I hadn’t seen it in years, and I like forgot how good it was? The lovely style, the amazing characters, the humor, I just love it. We should do more Miyazaki movies. Soon. Like… very soon, I feel the need to watch Spirited Away again. Anyway, I related so hard to Sophie, when she suddenly gets old and is just like, “yep, this is cool.” I loved it. And she is struggling to walk everywhere while sighing? I was watching it with my husband and I turned to him to be like “I relate to her,” and he said “I was just going to say that old Sophie reminds me of you.” So yeah, that’s how much he gets me. Another side note: I haven’t read the book (and I really want to), but the husband has. So he spent the whole movie being like “this is different. That didn’t happen. What actually happened was…” which, you know, typical. But I do think the movie on its own is just lovely. A complete departure and so full of soft magic that just… is. It has magical realism vibes, in a way. What’d you think?
Jeni: I really loved the aesthetic and vibes of the movie. The world is so much fun, and the movie has that dreamlike feel that make Ghibli have such a loyal following. And old Sophie is such a hoot! And wow, Howl is so cool in his bird/monster form. So having said all that, I did have some problems with the movie overall. I know we don’t talk about the book when it comes to watching the movie, but in this case, I felt like the choices they made when writing the adaptation left out some things that would’ve helped me understand some of the details of the story better. I haven’t read the book, so I found out when I googled to see if I could find out what I was missing in those details. It also makes me wonder how I missed this book as a kid because it’s so up my alley and definitely on my TBR now. But also, as fun as Howl is a character, I really struggled with him as a love interest. Like, what did Sophie see in him other than being beautiful? Or I guess, maybe that was enough? But to be fair, I feel like I would have been out when I saw his bathroom. Haha And I do give her a lot of credit for calling him out on being such a baby, even though it made zero difference. So Carly, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Okay, so there are a lot of elements we could talk about with this movie. But one thing that struck me was how well the beginning hit all the points you need to hit in your opening pages. It just so perfectly started to build the world, build the characters, establish threads, and get us hooked. It was just, chef’s kiss. Let’s break down the opening of the movie: We open by zooming into the town where we see warships floating around the city, and then we zoom even further into Sophie at the hat shop, staying late. She then leaves to go visit her sister across town when some very very skeezy guards begin to harass her. As she tries to get away, Howl swoops in to rescue her by pretending to be her boyfriend (a classic moment). After getting away from the guards we see shadow beasts close in on Howl and he uses magic to fly them up above the city in this magical moment (did I mention it’s magic?). He then drops her off on the balcony of her sister’s place of work, leaving Sophie a little starstruck. Her sister then warns her of magicians and how they can be evil. And that is the perfect first chapter to a book.
Jeni: Carly and I have read a lot of opening pages, in our editing work and then we get 100 each year in the #RevPit annual contest. Since this is the fifth year of that, that’s five hundred each just in RevPit. So when you read that many, you start to understand pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t and then what you really need in order to feel engaged with a story in the first chapter. Really the main purpose of the first chapter is orientation--you need to orient your reader to the main character and their world as well as the beginning of the plot. So we need to see some details of the setting which includes time period and location. We need to meet the main character and see their everyday world. Then you need to make sure you’re showing the reader something important about the main character’s personality traits. Let us see a hint of their emotional wound so we can start to get an idea of their character arc and also so we can connect with them on an emotional level. In terms of plot, there needs to be some conflict in the scene, but the conflict should reflect the setting--their everyday world, not the big plot point of the inciting event. It’s also important to show your strong narrative voice and create a mood and tone that matches the rest of the book--and the query or back cover blurb. You always want the first chapter to feel like it matches the query or back cover so the reader isn’t taken aback when it’s vastly different. And then lastly, you want to create a strong hook or sense of mystery that makes your reader want to keep reading to find out what happens next.
Carly: So how do we see all of that in this movie? Well first we get a ton of world building as the opening image is of the city and warships. We see floating dirigibles and contraptions that fly, we see an old coastal town made up of tile and cobblestone, yet there are modern steampunk vibes. We get a glimpse of Howl’s castle as it stomps across fields with each room looking like it was glued on at a different time. All of these things set up the world, we know what kind of place it is and that war is brewing all in the first images. In a book you want to pepper in that world building by having your characters interact with pieces that imply more about your world than a typical item would (like using a steam-powered hairbrush instead of a regular wooden one). Then we get to see Sophie’s everyday world. She works in a hat shop with her mother, who is flighty yet loving. She feels plain and uninteresting, staying late to finish work. In this we begin to learn about her emotional wound, she is lonely and isolated from the colorful world around her. She then travels to see her sister and we see that family connections are important to her, it is what drives her and motivates her, to be loved and to give love. Then we get to the hook, when she is harassed by the guards and Howl swoops in. For Sophie this is, unfortunately, typical conflict in her everyday life. We can see by how she reacts to them that she has dealt with many men like this. But when Howl shows up to rescue her, something is new and different, something exciting is happening. We’re starting to work towards that inciting event without giving the whole thing away. We see that new conflicts are arising and we’re hinting at what they could lead to. We see the shadow beasts swarming in on them, and we get more peppered in worldbuilding with Howl flying them away and the mood is set with this new magical feeling of wonder. We haven’t yet reached the inciting incident, which comes later when Sophie is fully dragged into the main conflict by being turned into an 80 year old. But we’re hinting at it. You want you opening pages to begin to set up the inciting incident and hint at the main conflict. Show readers how your characters could be getting embroiled in your plot, but they still have an out. It is still possible that this moment is fleeting. And then we have the sister setting up more conflict by warning Sophie away from the evil Howl. We now know when she interacts with him later that he has a fearsome reputation. All of these pieces work together to set a solid foundation for the story, let us relate more and more to the main character and their emotional wound, and it hooks us in with conflict and hints of further plot related conflict.
Jeni: One cool thing about using movies to study storytelling is that you can sometimes see patterns in a movie that are often present in books but can be harder to see because of how long it takes to read a book vs watch a movie. So in this movie, one thing that struck me was how the opening scenes tell us something about the rest of the story. In this way, it’s not just about orientation but also some foreshadowing. We see that Sophie’s family is isolated from each other, how lonely she is, and we also get a sense that there are some real changes that need to happen in this world. Like, I’m not sure what it says that when Lettie mentions Howl eating girls’ hearts I wasn’t sure if she meant it literally or figuratively. There are elements of the war and the blobby shadow people--did they have a name? And then we get this great moment where Howl and Sophie take flight. I wouldn’t categorize this movie as a romance, but as far as meet cutes go, this one is definitely a good one. And it does give us an idea that there will be something more going on with the two of them. Okay, I know I keep going back to Lettie and Sophie, but it made me laugh out loud when they were like “thank goodness that handsome man wasn’t the wizard Howl.” It’s always so fun when the reader or viewer gets to know something the characters don’t. So it’s really important to think about what elements of your story are most important and how you can work them into the first chapter organically. Because that is really important real estate in your book. You can’t get everything in so you have to be very thoughtful about what you do put in.
Carly: So the end of the movie really perfectly mirrors the opening. We see the castle still stomping around the meadows, we see the countries in a more peaceful state, but most importantly we see Sophie living her day to day with her new found family. That is really what she was searching for the whole time, a family that loves and supports her and thinks she’s something special. You want to bookend your… book, for lack of a better analogy. In the beginning of the story you are showing your main character and the world and how both are lacking somehow, both need change to occur. By the end, you can mirror the beginning to show how your characters have grown, how your world has changed because of your plot. By using similar scenes or mirroring your opening, it will draw attention to the changes. You don’t need to exactly mirror it, but showing similarities will highlight the differences more starkly. Plot and character arc are all about growth and change (even in a negative way sometimes), so you want to show at the end how everything is different, even if everything is mostly the same. There should be at least one thing that has changed that makes all the difference in the world to your characters.
Jeni: One problem I see frequently, and I’m sure you do too Carly, is that first chapters often don’t start in the right place. Listeners, if you’ve gotten that feedback before, you know how frustrating it is to hear. So here’s what I tell clients about where to start and which characters to start with. In terms of where to start--you want the end of your first chapter to reflect a change in the main character’s everyday world. Another way to think about it is it’s where the main character puts one foot on the path that will lead them to the inciting event at the 12% mark. So ask yourself what the first change is that gets the main plot moving. What is the event that leads the main character to all the things that will happen later? Once you know that, figure out what they were doing right before that happened. That’s where you start the first scene. So in this case, the thing that changes Sophie’s everyday world is meeting Howl. So what was she doing right before that? Working in her hat shop and then going to see her sister. Very commonplace at that point. But we use that commonplace setting and events to orient the reader and show who she is, what she needs in her life, how she needs to change. So then that is all present when the cool stuff starts happening in a few minutes. In terms of which characters need to be present in the first chapter, think about 1) who makes sense to be there in the everyday world? For Sophie, that’s her coworkers in the very beginning. Notice we don’t catch all of their names though. 2) Who do we need to see in order to understand the main character’s emotional wound? In this case, it’s her mom and sister. 3) Who needs to be part of the conflict? That would be the guards, the shadow blobs, and Howl. If you’re struggling to figure this out, critique partners and other writer friends can be hugely helpful to talk this over with.
Carly: Okay so, there are a few no-noes for your opening pages. Remember it is all about engaging your reader and convincing them to stick around for the whole book. So if you start out with too much exposition, it will feel boring and long. If you start out with a flashback, readers will be lost/confused from the beginning and wondering why the story doesn’t start somewhere else. If we are bogged down in description it will feel like when your family member tells you a very long tale with added details that don’t matter and readers will wonder when we are getting to the point. If you start with your inciting incident, readers won’t feel a connection to your main characters and have no attachment to what is happening to them. If it is full of backstory it will feel like reading a history book. If you start with cliches, it will feel overdone and like a book your readers have read before. All of these elements can be used in moderation, it is about balancing expectations, attachments, worldbuilding, and conflict. Those elements will ground your reader while piquing their interest. But if you bog them down with too much of one thing or throw miscellaneous cliches at them, it can be a big turn off. Anyway, we could go on and on about opening pages, like Jeni said, we’ve read hundreds (if not thousands) of them. We even have another podcast with Write Hive where we are talking about opening pages for the entire season. So check that out if you want more in-depth thoughts on opening pages, or let us know if you want us to devote a whole episode to one of these topics that we touched on. Basically, we did an overview, and we could talk forever, as usual.
Carly: This month our query is also an adult fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: Wow, this story sounds amazing! Overall this query does a great job of explaining the premise and the main character’s involvement in the plot. I do not have a lot to critique here. The biggest thing to me is that you give us a lot of set up/worldbuilding info up front. It’s written well, but I think the query will be stronger if you tell us about your main character first. We only get a quick mention of her name before you launch into the warring nations and all the backstory. I’m not sure you need to remove all of that info, but look to see where/if you can condense and then make sure we get to know your character more first.
Carly: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. I thought the story sounded great, but I did get a little lost with all of the different worldbuilding names. It wasn’t too bad, to be clear, I easily got over it. But sometimes it can be more effective to show the type of groups at play, instead of naming them. I wasn’t sure why the main character was involved, or which group she was a part of. Simplifying some of the worldbuilding will help you balance that.