Lessons of Shawshank
The Shawshank Redemption is currently on Netflix and since it’s one of my all-time favorite stories, I spent last evening re-watching it. Because I already knew the plot, I was able to better analyze what story-telling aspects made this such a powerful short novel by Stephen King, and an equally powerful film by Frank Darabont. I made a note of these aspects to remind myself what I ought to be doing every time I write a book. When I finished, I decided to share these notes on my blog in case they’re helpful to anyone. (Possible spoilers below.) 1. Find the most dramatic situations to illustrate the plot. When Andy overhears the head prison guard talking about his financial woes, and he gets the idea to offer help in order to get on the guard’s good side, he and his fellow inmates are working on a roof. Misunderstanding Andy, the guard becomes furious at first and threatens to push Andy off the roof. This creates an incredibly tense scene where we’re frightened for Andy’s life. Instead, if this scene had taken place on the ground, the guard might’ve threatened to beat him up, but it would not have grabbed our attention in such a powerful way as the threat of instant death falling from a rooftop. 2. Create a powerful theme that is reflected by every aspect of the story. Shawshank’s theme is that no one can truly live without hope. We see this over and over, as hope is the only thing sustaining Andy through all of his travails. Not only this, but also Andy brings hope to others, by playing the opera, by building up the library, by teaching the new young inmate. Andy exemplifies the power of hope. Ideally, you want to have a character who is transformed by the theme, and here it is Red, who like most of the other lifers, has no hope in the beginning of the story but (unlike the others) has gained it by the end. He is effectively contrasted against Brooks, whose inability to gain hope leads to tragedy. 3. Use emotional resonance to deepen the story and characters. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Andy commandeers the warden’s office and broadcasts Mozart’s gorgeous opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to all the inmates. Andy does this for no other reason than his desire to give them a moment of hope, an experience of beauty, music, and joy. Andy receives a terrible punishment for his unselfish act, and we sympathize with him all the more for it. This incident is recalled not long after when Andy literally gives Red the gift of music, in the form of a harmonica. These are only two examples; the story is filled with deep moments of friendship, hope, despair, tragedy, and joy. 4. Write quotable lines that resonate with readers long after the story is over. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” -Andy “I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.” -Red
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” -Andy “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” -Red “I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone.” -Red Yes, I know, much easier said than done. Stephen King is a master storyteller and it’s damn near impossible to write something as good as The Shawshank Redemption. But I’ll keep its lessons in mind as I write my next novel. I'll be hoping for the best.