Saturday, February 23, 2013

Writing Take Two

A product of the age of television I understand that film influences the way I write. As a child, I watched more television and movies than I read books. Other authors I know lived in libraries and as a result their writing focuses a good deal on prose. Moreover their whole style and structure tends to be different. They are more comfortable with narration and exposition, but mostly the flow of the story is loose and somewhat free-flowing. Instead of hard breaks between scenes, they merely back off in details covering incidents in a more distant, vague sort of way as in:

The next day she went to work as usual. She ate dinner at the café, took Albert for a walk around the park—always clockwise—and crawled into bed with Henry James and her Itsy-Bitsy book light. 

This sort of “filling-in-the gaps” technique is something I almost never do because it isn’t really cinematic, anymore than say, lots of inner-dialog. In film, those things would be handled as a music montage, and a voice-over, neither of which I care too much for. But such things are commonplace in novels—particularly older works. Books prior to Hemmingway reveled in their dense exposition that in some cases weighed narratives down to the point of drowning,  often being saved only by exquisite prose. Literature of the 19th century can often effect modern readers like first time drinkers of dry wines, they sometimes require developing a taste for them. A lot of that I suspect has to do with the new culture raised with video as our native language.

I would imagine that after being trained on the King James Bible, Nathanial Hawthorn would have been the modern equivalent to a James Patterson crime thriller.

The value of the old verses the new can be debated (I like both for different reasons) but all this I have stated merely to place in context some writing advice. The authors of the world—despite popular myth—do not belong to a secret society and all abide by the same rules, and wear ceremonial robes at night (despite what Neil Gaiman claims.)

A good deal of modern writing does reflect the influence of film, and I advocate using that analogy to assist in the writing process, even in how to think about approaching projects. (It also helps to illustrate techniques that might otherwise be harder to explain.) When people—readers and writers—imagine a scene in their heads, more often than not, they see it in camera terms—like a movie. Without thought we often see the scene form a specific angle, a certain lighting, and the lens might even zoom in, or pan as the scene progresses. We usually think in words, but we also can “see” like a camera. Keeping this in mind can help the creation process.

When structuring a novel I find it best to divide the story into sections or “scenes.” One problem I find some writers make is to write everything out connecting two scenes with light or distant narrative as with the afore mentioned woman with the Henry James book. The problem I discover with this is that these “filler” portions are by nature weak, and oftentimes writer get in the habit of writing not just connections this way, but whole scenes. Entire novels are described in a distant weak style and the writer can’t understand what it lacks. If their books was a movie, they might see that their story is just two people moving around on a blank stage without costumes. Keeping a book restricted to clear scenes helps fix this.

A little exercise that writers might find helpful is to imagine they are actually film directors. Consider showing up for the first day of shooting with a single camera, two actors and an idea of what you think ought to happen. After the first day of shooting, you’d watch the dailies and realize a lot was missing. A proper background for one, lights for another.

Just like a director, an author must build every scene. You can’t just roll film of two people in T-shirts and jeans before a blank wall. You need costumes, specific lighting, staging, props, a script, choreography, and afterward you’ll need to add in sound effects and music. Camera angles have to be considered, marks have to be hit. All of this takes time and forethought. Even the simple setting of a New York apartment might take days and thousands of dollars to set up properly. Everything that appears in the camera has to be taken into account. Photos on the walls, the color of the walls, wall paper, windows, furniture, throw pillows. Are there left out plates? Is the coat hung up or on the chair. What kind of coat? What kind of chair? All this has to be considered before the first frame can be filmed. No one viewing the finished product will notice everything you did. Few will note that there were apples in the fruit bowl on the table instead of oranges because the scene took place in autumn, but such touches do create an overall feel that might not even be conscious, but it’s still there. All this has to be done to make a rich and believable scene.

The same is true in writing.

Just because all that happens in a scene is that Marge tells Bob that he isn’t invited to the party, this doesn’t mean you can forego development. Imagine a movie where because a scene is of little importance, the film maker didn’t bother with using a setting, costumes or makeup for that three minute exchange. How jarring would that be?

Writers have a tendency to do this. Sometimes, because they themselves get bored with the trivial, they rip through them in general narration so they can return to something worth spending time on. If however you treat your novel like a movie, you’d know you can’t do that. Each scene must have as much development as every other. A ten second shot might require months of prep work and millions of dollars.

Each scene then is a huge investment of time and of words. Nothing in a book is trivial. So understanding that even minor events require the same setup, the same layout of sights, sounds and smells, a writer will pause and consider whether such a trivial point even needs its own scene. Is it worth the outlay? If the point of the scene is tiny, maybe it can be discarded, or it can be added to a later event, or help enrich an earlier scene where more happens to take advantage of that setup.

What this does is helps the writer to visualize the story in specific shots, to tighten up events, and to reuse characters, settings and props rather than introduce new ones. Reusing characters, and places help make them more real to the reader, keeps the novel from rambling aimlessly, and saves the writer from have to invest in building new ideas in the minds of readers.

Description tends to be a tricky problem for many. Most people speak and listen to others speak, but few ever need to describe a room in detail or hear anyone else do it. Setting description is then alien and difficult to master. Many just avoid doing it resulting in blind stories. Others dump flat reports on the states of places with all the acumen of Dragnet. These become dry, boring and obligatory. Just the facts ma’am.

Facing the task of describing a place might appear daunting. How do you describe everything? Looking at a setting through the lens of a camera crew can help. You aren’t just seeing something happen, you’re building a visual. Where is the light coming from? This is actually one of the first questions I always ask myself in describing any scene because it affects so much. Daylight or starlight results in such a different mood than lantern, or candle light. With any fire light you have moving shadows, so then you have to ask, where are they, what do they look like? As people move will they block the light? In daylight, is it brilliant, or cloudy? Sharp angles or vague. Lighting and subsequently the time of day is crucial for the reader to grasp events and establish moods. In movies now, they digitally tint the scenes to be more of one color or another. Everyone has seen a night scene where it is very blue. This tinting doesn’t just establish time of day, but also make it feel more creepy, magical, more dangerous, or carefree.

All this can be done in writing as well by taking care in what words are used, and what subjects are focused on.

Behind lay the long moonlit corridor of empty road. Mist pooled in the dips and gullies, and somewhere an unseen stream trickled over rocks. They were deep in the forest on the old southern road, engulfed in a long tunnel of oaks and ash whose slender branches reached out over the road, quivering and clacking in the cold autumn wind.

There is a mood to this passage because of mists that pool, unseen rivers, and branches that reach, quiver, and clack. Even before I tell you that this is the kind of place people never found bodies, you already have that sense.

If I had described the sludge like mud of the road, and the unrelenting wind and how leaves slapped them in the face, you’d have a different feel, more a sense of exhaustion, and effort. Both would aptly describe the same place and time, but steer the reader’s emotions in a different direction.

Everything needs to be taken into account when looking through the camera lens to make a scene complete.

In the new Bond movies—mostly the opening of the Quantum of Solace—the camera work is very jittery, the depth of field up close and tight, and the editing fast. All of this made understanding what was going on just about impossible, but it did establish a sense of action and urgency. Often I was tense and had no idea why. I imagine if someone filmed a shampoo commercial in the same manner I’d be on the edge of my seat hoping the beautiful blonde survived the rinsing.

In a way this is a gimmick, a trick to drive emotion. The same thing can be done in writing. Single. Word. Sentences. Provide a similar halting effect. Dropping a reader into a scene and describing only what they see, but withholding context can leave readers riveted, as they try to make sense of what’s going on.  This effect is heightened if only small specific details are used.

Hardcover book, title torn away, hit the puddle. In the distance a Buick’s horn sounded a single long note. Hard shoes clicked on pavement. Closing in. All of them.

Shearing text down to a minimalist level and punching each impression like a fast edited movie scene, you can convey that same jerking sense of intensity. You really have no idea what is happening in this scene—I don’t either, I just made it up—but it feels tense. Maybe it’s a spy thriller. But what if it was written a little differently. What if the lighting and background music was changed and the camera was held steady and pulled back to view the whole event in context?

Susan dropped her used English grammar text book right in the puddle. The book was already so worn that the title could no longer be read; now it was soaked. Her mother was in the parking lot and blowing the horn of their old Buick. Behind her the rest of the students were stampeding toward the buses.

Very different attitude.

It is also useful to know where the camera is and how many you have in order to capture a scene from the right angle. Top down scenes just aren’t as fun or exciting as a level close up shot. In writing your cameras are your points of view. A scene shot from a child’s perspective is very different from an adults—the angle is different. And a general omniscient narrator is that big, wide angle aerial shot from far away.

When you consider how many tools are at a writer’s disposal for developing any given scene, the complexity of creating a thoughtful book starts to register, and sometimes it helps to just hold up your fingers in that hooky frame and see it all as a movie.


  1. Great post!

    Until my later teen years, I read a lot of comics and some nonfic. Watched some tv and read only a few novels. So my experience is similar to yours, but not exactly the same since comics fall a bit between comics and movies, though they lean more toward the cinematic spectrum. I also study cinematic story structure. In part because movie folks like discussing the nuts and bolts of structure where so many novelists seem to cringe at the mere thought.

    I write almost exclusively in scenes as well. I think I used the filling-in-the-gaps technique two, maybe three, times in my latest novel. I suspect my others all use it about the same amount. I use it where a movie would likely do a montage. Montage works great in movies, stringing together a bunch of quick shots to show a lot of small actions over a large chunk of time. The cliched training montage of a fighter spending weeks getting ready for the big fight, that sort of thing. Montage doesn't really work in novel prose. You end up with super short scenes that lack any drive or you end up with a lot of scenes to cover a small idea, throwing off the pacing. So that's what I use that technique for, when information and actions and the passage of time must be covered but quickly and simply. Takes a few sentences, no more than a few paragraphs.

    I suspect some writers who don't plot write in the distant casual narrative mode because they're just keeping in motion until they hit the next scene. I don't have a lot of patience for stories written that way. Possibly because I write in scenes and watch so much television and movies along with reading.

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  2. Nice blog post. I write very scene by scene like a movie. I don't have any transition filler (I think), but I have received feedback that without it my books seem a bit jumpy. However I have received feedback just the opposite that people liked that they did not drag on or get swamped in detail.

    It can be hard to figure out what to do sometimes as a writer. Do you go and add more makeup, costumes, hair designers, and set directors for your book until you don't hear people say it lacked detail? By then the people that liked the lack of filler probably won't complain there is too much, but they might not remember the longer read if it slows down the action and drama.

    It's a balancing act for sure.

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