Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cinematic Writing

There was a workshop on cinematic writing that I almost passed on when I went to the retreat in July. Then I read the session description. This wasn’t a class meant for screenwriters, it was for fiction writers. As strange as it initially seemed to me, the study of film can teach us a lot about good writing. With minor exceptions, movies are all show and no tell.

Films don’t and can’t use abstract descriptions, generalizations, summaries, analyses or interpretation to let us know how characters feel at any given moment. Narrators don’t tell us that a character is sad, angry, filled with passion, ecstatic, or depressed. Filmmakers have to show those things to us.

Can you picture characters in movies that have these feelings? Can you see, in your mind’s eye a woman who has been told in a staff meeting that she’s been chosen for a promotion? Can you feel the quickening of her pulse, the whooshing in her ears that is her own blood rushing, can you see her self-conscious physical tics, maybe she’s pushing her hair behind her ear or clicking a ballpoint pen, can you feel and see her attempts to control her excitement and her happiness? Can you describe the physical sensations she’s having and exhibiting, without using abstract words?

There is no voice over in a movie to tell us that a character is recently divorced or has been left by his lover and therefore drinks alone every night, orders in from the same Chinese take-out, pops pills to sleep and hasn’t opened his mail in a month, but films can show us all of that within a minute or two.

Do you see the inside of this man’s apartment? The overflowing trash can filled with unread newspapers, empty liquor bottles and Chinese take-out boxes? Did you watch him come in with his mail in his hand and dump it on top of a pile of unopened envelopes on the chipped Formica counter? Did you notice that he’s on a first name basis with the man who delivers his food? Did you see him swallow something from a prescription bottle before he gets into bed and surfs through all night infomercials?

Nobody has to tell us anything and we know a lot about this character.

We can learn a lot from movies.

The medium of film allows us partial participation in the characters world through what we can see and hear. We can see the sensual response on the outside of a character’s body through his or her posture, gestures and expressions. We can hear noises and we can learn things through a character’s tone of voice. Our words allow us to explore the story world on a deeper level. We can express emotions by the way they actually feel in very concrete terms. Grief feels like a pressure or palpable weight that literally makes it difficult to breathe. Fear releases adrenaline that tenses our muscles, makes us ready to run, and heightens our awareness of sight and sound. There are physical manifestations that accompany all human emotions.

In fiction, we can also describe smells and we can describe tactile sensations

I tend to think I’m showing and not telling a lot more than I really am. When I read over my work, I am usually surprised to see how many abstract adjectives I’m using and how much more I could show my reader through sensory description.

Do you consciously avoid using abstract descriptions, or are you still working on it, like I am? When you describe a character that is experiencing a specific emotion, do you sit down and mentally try to summon up all of the physical sensations that come with that emotion? How do you show emotion in your work?

For extra credit and my undying admiration (I can't think of an actual prize), can you name the movies these pictures come from?


liz fenwick said...

Interesting.....I see the scene playing in front of me and I pull details out of it to try and show the read what is happening. When I reread the scene after enough time has passed I try and only see what I have put in wordsto check that I have captured the scene - if that makes sense.

I love your walk through the man's apartment - brilliant :-)

I haven't a clue on the films...

reality said...

At times I have tried to visualize my writing as scenes in a movie. It cannot be done in about 50% of the novel. I attribute that to the fact that novels are a different animal. Or perhaps my writing is not there.

When I watch a movie, I do try to pick up on how the director has made this scene show all the emotions in a few seconds and how I would have to translate that into writing.

ChrisH said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for your comments and good to meet you too - wise post... and I can't name the film! Look forwards to reading more of your blogs.

Anonymous said...

Any medium of story teaches us about another so I completely agree and appreciate this entry. I found that poetry, for example, encourages brevity and imagery. Cartooning inspires a single panel of character expression. Film has multifunctional elements that transferred to text, can improve the writing. Thanks for sharing your experience and your continuing thoughts on the workshop!

susan @ spinning

Therese said...

Cinematic writing is what makes for a vivid reading experience, I agree. This is the minutiae of "show, don't tell," the texturizing of a story on paper.

Not only do we need to show scenes (rather than summarize, or tell, of them), we need to show the characters' inner landscapes within the scene.

My experience with striving for those results is something like method acting. The more I attune to the physical realities of experience (as you point out), the more vivid my scenes become.

One reader wrote me recently to say she'd both loved and "lived" Souvenir, which was very gratifying. Learning how to better access and represent emotions was, I believe, one of the reasons this novel got published, when my previous one didn't.

As for the movies? I can only ID the last one (I think) as Glengarry Glen Ross.

Ray-Anne said...

Hi there- Ray-Anne here. I came to this blog via Liz Fenwick, so I hope you do not mind me adding a comment.
Everything I know about story structure in novels came from courses on writing screenplays.

Robert McKee gave me so many lightbulb moments - until then I had no idea that these writers choreograph the individual beats of the emotional response of the audience - and best of all, John Truby, who I highly recommend.

Both US. McKee has since written a well known book - 'Story' and Truby created software and a recent book, which I have not read.
Truby's website is a great resource -http://www.truby.com/.

And lastly, Terry Rosio and Ted Elliot who wrote Shrek, Pirate of the carib etc - have a brilliant resource site for structure and craft.http://www.wordplayer.com/

And of course you are quite correct, show not tell is crucial and complex.

Ray-Anne said...

PS. Not sure about the first one - but were the others
American Beauty, Harold and Maude and Glengarry Glen Ross?
Rgds, Ray-Anne

Patti said...

ack! no one said there'd be a test today!!! AND i'm in my underwear!!!!

Anonymous said...

That first one is stumping me too. I absolutely love Harold and Maude, it is probably one of my top five favorite movies.

Yes I have often wondered over the power of a picture vs a thousand words. When I write, I don't see the screen in front of me; what I'm writing is playing out like a movie in my head and since I touch type and can do it fairly fast the experience is often somewhat bizarre. Almost like a meditation. That sounds crazy, right? But when I'm really into the scene, I'm not really aware of what I'm writing. This is first draft stuff.

But the point is, when you're transcribing a movie from your head, you're more likely to just show what your characters are feeling, seeing, hearing, saying, doing, touching, etc. There isn't a narrator in there explaining to me, "Dan felt sad." I'm seeing his face contort, I'm feeling the pressure building in his chest, I hear him cough, watch him choke back the grief. I am particularly interested in his ability to never shed a single tear.

I think authors, in our great desire to make sure our audience "gets it" over explain. We need to trust our readers and their ability to bring greater insight to the work from their own experiences. Quite often they have a deeper understanding than even the author intended.

Ello said...

About Schmidt, American Beauty, Harold and Maud and Glengarry Glen Ross - which I absolutely loved!

Great pot as usual Lisa! I actually started off writing a screenplay (partly because I was entertainment lawyer and so I was around the idea of tv and movies all the time) for my first book. It is such a different experience from writing a novel. For instance, I learned that when you are writing a screenplay and you have alot of heavy dialogue scenes, something always had better be happening around the characters or they should be moving or something. There is some famous quote which I am going to totally mangle that Humphrey Bogart (I think) said when he saw pages of dialogue on a screenplay. He said "There'd better be two elephants f**king in the background while I'm reading this." It's why when you watch a movie and two characters are talking, they are either walking, driving, eating, exercising, etc. Anyway, my point in this is that a screenwriter has different concerns than a straight fiction writer. But I agree with you that we can learn alot from the movies. I write with the intent of breathing life into my scenes. And one of the nicest compliments I receive from my readers is when they tell me my scenes feel cinematic. I feel like I've achieved my goal.

Ello said...

I meant post - sheesh! what am I thinking?

Melissa Marsh said...

Janet Dailey once said that she sees a "filmstrip" in her head of what her characters are doing. I think I do the same thing. I have to "see" it in my mind because if I don't, I can't properly desribe it. But I also have to remind myself to do that - to take the time to really look at my scene from different angles and make sure I'm describing everything correctly.

I have come to the conclusion that I can't watch a film anymore without scrutinizing all of its different aspects.

Sustenance Scout said...

Thinking in scenes helps me a lot, not only in writing but in trying to communicate how to write a story as a series of scenes. Great post! I just wrote to Patti that her comment cracked me up. :)

Lisa said...

Wow! Thanks for all of the great comments everyone. Lots of great additional food for thought here.

While reading through I was thinking that although I try to put myself in the moment to experience the feelings a character might -- like Therese's reference to method acting, that's it exactly -- I don't think I always manage this the first go round. I think (but I'm not sure, since I'm still finding my own process) that I still tend to do this a little bit when I go over my first draft and start to edit.

Love Bogart's quote!

And the grand prize for correctly guessing all four film photos goes to Ello for identifying About Schmidt, American Beauty, Harold and Maud and Glengarry Glen Ross! Very good eye. You already had my undying admiration for the great posts at your place, so if I can think of a better prize, I'll let you know what it is :)))

Ello said...

I have to admit that I wouldn't have gotten American Beauty if someone hadn't pointed it out earlier! And I love your blog!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing post! And yes, I'm with the previous poster who mentioned learning a great deal about storytelling from film and screenwriting. I've taken a film writing class and yes, learning how to describe emotion in scenes and well, motion, was invaluable. I also heartily second the suggestion to check out Robert McKee's "Story"--I am reading it now and finding it very helpful. I also really liked Story Sense by Paul Lucey.

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