Book Review: Invisible Ink (A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate) by Brian McDonald 4


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I was recently asked by a book company to read and review Invisible Ink (A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate) by Brian McDonald. I accepted the offer and was childishly excited when the book was delivered through my door from America!

So, first up, what is Invisible Ink? Brian McDonald explains on his blog:

“Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see, or notice it, but they will feel it.”

The book deals with elements of storytelling that aren’t immediately obvious to the reader/viewer. So, to explain with an example, dialogue is considered visible ink, whereas tools for showing, rather than telling, such as clone characters (those used to measure the success of the main character – like how Gollum is used to show what could happen to Frodo if he gives in to the ring’s power) are considered invisible ink. Invisible ink encompasses all sorts of storytelling methods that are essential to good storytelling, but which aren’t easily identified until you are made aware of them.

McDonald, writer of award-winning short film White Face, has taught his craft at major studios including Pixar and George Lucas’ ILM. His book has recieved positive reviews from the likes of Andrew Stanton, co-writer for Toy Story, Finding Nemo and WALL-E and Jim Taylor, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Sideways and Election, who even goes as far as to say “Ignore him at your peril”!

I found Invisible Ink to be a very enjoyable read. It is split up into easily-digestable sections with short chapters in each on different storytelling techniques. McDonald writes well in a way that is neither too academic for the beginner or condescending to the more advanced screenwriter. He backs up all his points with plentry of examples from films, books and stories across the board, so there is always something the reader will recognise and relate to.

As I was reading through Invisible Ink I thought of it as an ideal book for those just starting out in screenwriting. McDonald covers everything you need to know to build a good story but never loses your interest. It doesn’t read like a textbook or a how-to book. It is almost as though you are sitting in on one of his seminars. He interjects the narrative with personal anecdotes to help explain his theories or how he came to discover certain methods and he even goes as far as to include the script for his own award-winning short, White Face. Here, we are able to put everything he has taught us throughout the book into practice as we read his story about racial prejudice not only on the surface, as a story, but beneath the surface – the language of invisible ink. McDonald takes us through his own process and explains exactly how he used all the methods talked about in the book in his own work.

Having said that this book is ideal for a beginner, I by no means think that intermediate and advanced screenwriters won’t benefit. I consider myself as an intermediate writer. I’m educated in how to write, I do write and am continuously trying to improve my education and my writing, but I’m not yet an expert. I found that some of the methods McDonald talks about I already knew, but it is the fresh way in which he describes them that makes them stand out by way of “reinforcement”. For example, McDonald explains the importance of theme in stories and how people can become confused by what theme actually is. Theme is what you want to say in your story – the message you want to get across. Theme isn’t a single word or genre, but a statement, a point, a moral perhaps. I myself have gotten confused by this in the past. McDonald explains theme in a different way. He describes it as an armature – the idea upon which we hang our story. This analogy is particularly good to me as representation of what theme is, because I have studied sculpture and made a fair few armatures myself!

Another strong visual representation McDonald presents is that of “masculine” and “feminine” elements of storytelling. In a nutshell, masculine elements are external, such as action scenes/things that happen, and feminine elements are internal, such as emotions/consequences of actions. McDonald is by no means being sexist here and he goes on to explain his research behind this theory, but what he is really trying to do here is present a way of looking at the balance of stories. It is important to balance the masculine and feminine elements in a story for it to have resonance. There are some excellent action movies, such as The Godfather, in which there are consequences for the things that happen (murder). These are balanced, the exploration of consequence equating to a “female” element. McDonald argues that screenplays with no emotional or thematic life are unbalanced. Lots of things happen, but with no real purpose. I agree with this and I really like his way of looking at it – I find it memorable and can apply it to the films I watch, as I’ll exlain further in a moment.

Invisible Ink covers a lot within its 153 pages. Whilst reading I would often say to myself “Oh yeah!” in response to storytelling methods that seem really obvious to me now, but which I hadn’t really noticed or understood in such depth before reading the book. Thus is the nature of invisible ink!

To conclude, I would say that this is a good book. It’s a nice read, easy to follow and covers lots of storytelling methods which will really help beginners and might even surprise advanced writers, too. McDonald gives you fresh ways to look at films and identify their strengths, something which I realised when watching Hostage last night after having finished reading Invisible Ink. I was able to identify the methods McDonald talks about in Invisible Ink, especially his theory on masculine and feminine elements. It was clear that Hostage was a well-balanced film, combining high-action with motive, emotional turmoil and consequences for actions.

If you’d like to buy Invisible Ink, I’ve added it to my bookshop on my Writesofluid writing resources website. If you purchase through my Amazon-powered bookshop, I’ll get a few pennies for the referral!

Are you a book company, publisher or author who would like me to review their book/s on my blog? Feel free to contact me!

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