I for one love to read ‘the book’ rather than watch ‘the movie’. The reason is, I want to let my own imagination create the world the book has drawn me into.
I want ‘that’ character to evolve as I see him or her; guided by the author’s words, yes. But I do not want it forced upon me, in such detail, there is no room for my own mind to fashion form.
The pity is, there is no choice when watching a movie. A film shows the actress’s face and how the character’s voice sounds.
There is very little left for one’s own imagination.
Yet, I have formed some of my [best?] writing techniques from watching movies. Well, not just movies but TV dramas, plays, even commercials. Almost anything, in fact, which contains moving images.
Now, you may think, from what I have written above, I am contradicting myself by making what seems, at least on a superficial level, contradictory statements.
So I shall, in my normal ‘Rambling’ way, try to convey exactly how watching moving images has enabled me to hone my skill as a writer of words.
It is mostly to do with the film’s editing, a lot to do with camera work and a bit to do with stealing the director’s viewpoint.
However, before I can start on that, I must tell you when I am watching a film or TV with a ‘writers eye,’ it is not the same as watching for enjoyment or pleasure. Even if sometimes I cannot help but notice things when I have no intention of thinking about writing. (But that is my cross to bear, not yours. At least not yet, not until you have finished reading this!)
Ok. The Director’s viewpoint. This is probably the most obvious, yet, in this great scheme of things, the least important.
Imagine the opening shot of a film scene.
— The camera slowly pans across a room, it is dull. Dust mots hang in the air, highlighted by faint shafts of light streaming downwards through a window. As the camera pans from the window, a small figure of a young girl wearing a white cotton nightdress is revealed. —
This is gold dust to me.
The scene, altered to suit my style and the storyline I am writing, is something I can use.
NO… this is not plagiarism.
I would not copy it, but use the imagery as a base to create my own, dull room in which I could slowly reveal a figure of… someone.
My room may be a log cabin, a large warehouse or a compartment in a submarine. The light source could be from a fireplace, daylight filtering through a damaged roof or the ‘red’ lighting used on ‘that’ submarine.
The figure I reveal may be an old man, a dead body lying on the cold concrete floor or maybe the ghostly spectre of an old sailor.
BUT…. all this has come to me from watching the opening shot of the movie; seeing it, not from the ‘viewer’s’ eyes, not as a member of the ‘audience’, but from my imaginary ‘director’s chair‘. To have an understanding of the atmosphere the director was trying to create when he shot the scene and how the darkness, the light and the slow reveal assisted him in conveying the mood and ambience to those watching.
Recognising the director’s intentions and methods, simply leaves me is to translate the scene, or my version of the scene, into words, imagining it over and over in my own mind like a movie, so as I write, the ambience and timing of my own story is just as cohesive to the reader.
Secondly. Camera work.
While the above scene clearly needed the aid of a camera to record the director’s instructions, all of the actual imagery in a film is down to how things enter the lens. Yes, some of this is to do with lighting and the type of film used, but here I am speaking of the camera alone.
Firstly, the angle, the position of the camera to its subject. Not forgetting its height. Generally, a low shot, ground level, is used to enhance the perception of speed. Think about car racing or chases. How the tyres almost run over the lens or rock the camera as the vehicles flash past. (Yes, depth of field and all that matters, but it is not important here).
A high shot, from a boom, tall building, a crane or drone, one which looks down on the subjects, can give expression of vastness, loneliness or being lost.
Next time you go to the movies take note of where the camera is situated to get ‘the shot’. I do, it enables me to hold the moment, the feeling of vastness or loneliness, in my mind while I write my next paragraph.
Reading my words back to myself, I am hoping they evoke the same feelings; if they do not conjure the right imagery, as when watching the film, I will re-write, over and over, until I get it right.
Lastly, but for me the most important, is the Editing.
Now, I am not talking about editing words, but editing film, which is a totally different beast.
I cannot help myself with this…
When I have my ‘writers head’ on, I am constantly, without any self-control, watching for the ‘cuts’. Often more intently than whatever I am viewing. I know it is sad, but it is the truth… maybe I do need to get out more?
For those of you who may not be familiar with the terminology, a ‘cut’ is an abrupt, but usually trivial transition from one sequence to another, usually, without breaking the flow necessary to keep an audience engaged with the narrative.
Cuts are noticeable when two characters are holding a conversation. Each time one character speaks the viewer sees who is talking. So, say firstly you see a boy speaking. When he stops the girl starts to speak and you see her face. That change of viewpoint, from him to her, that is a cut.
In fast moving action scenes and in most advertising, where time is at a premium, you will see many ‘cuts’ per minute. Chances are you will not have been aware of them… until after you have read this, when you will be unable to watch anything without trying to count how many ‘cuts’ are involved, even in the simplest broadcast. (Sorry.)
I hear you asking, how the devil can that help me write better?
Truth is, it may not help you.
But it helps me. This is how I utilize ‘cuts’ when writing.
For this explanation assume I am writing an important part of my stories plot, one where I need to get the emotion and feeling soaking into my reader’s psyche. This is one part of my book where I must get the reader totally immersed in the story, where they must believe they are living in my fictitious world.
I have already written the basic scene, it is in outline form, a rough, very rough draft. Now I need to build it, develop it, into a masterpiece.
Going back, to the early shot of the young girl in the dull room. Let’s say the story is of a child longing for her dead mother’s return.
This time, instead of using the scene as an opening, we will use it as a scene somewhere within the depths of the book, a part which needs far more input to make it ring true.
It is here I will start bringing in those [film] ‘editing’ tricks.
I shall still start with the description of a dull room, but this time I will place the reader at a set viewpoint, say, they are looking into the room, through the doorway, from an even darker hallway.
Once the reader has that firmly in their mind, I will ‘cut’ the shot.
Now the reader is looking down from above. (Remember this viewpoint conjures a sense of loneliness and being lost). This allows me to ‘open up’ the scene, to use words which reinforce the atmosphere I am creating.
I will employ words which carry connotations and suggest the values I desire. In this instance that could be, “a heavy shadow” or possibly, “even the floorboards seemed to weep with sadness as I crossed the room.”
I want the reader to envisage a large empty room, a figure, the introduction of my second character, walking across it towards the young girl. I want the floorboards to creak, to give an impression of neglect, of loss or of foreboding. (This can be used as a form of foreshadowing.)
The words ‘heavy’ & shadow’ both work well individually and better in combination. With ‘sadness and weep’ I manage to blend the sound of the floorboards as they are walked upon without saying ‘creek‘ or ‘crack‘, which are ‘harsh’ words and far too direct to covey the correct ‘mood’ in this scene.
Now I use a close-up of the young girl. For the first time, we see her face, the way the “sallow light settled on her fair skin” or “her pale blue eyes, damp with tears yet unformed.”
Again using simple words which are descriptive of the girl character, but also in the context and reinforcement of the mood of the scene.
Now… the viewer sees both characters together, giving a juxtaposition of size and age, hints at the relationship between the two. One speaks to the other… Etc.
The second figure could be a sister, a social worker or nurse, maybe the step-mother or even the ghost of the girl’s maternal mother.
Now the viewpoint is of both of them looking out of the room, into the darkness of the aforementioned ‘darker hallway’; they have just heard a noise… “their heads snapping around, towards the sound…”
This is how I write many of my scenes. by watching a movie inside my head, in the darkroom of my mind. Personally, I find it helps me construct a whole, comprehensive section of my plot. It stops me rushing, stops me skimming over sections which deserve more care.
Please note, when I say ‘viewpoint’ in this essay, I am not speaking of the ‘narrator’s viewpoint’, but that of my imaginary camera/ cameraman I carry within my mind. Sometimes this may be in harmony with the narrative viewpoint, but more often is not.
Mostly I write a complete scene from a number of these converging angles, such as in the brief example above. But the stories narrative perspective is kept constant.
This is not to say I do not need to edit or re-write, far from it, but each time I do, I use the same technique to make ‘tweaks’ until the scene works. Editing and re-writes purely allow you to correct the detail and flush out unnecessary and often misleading words and to hone the cutting edge of the stories mood.
This way of writing may not work for you. It may go against all you have learnt about writing, or just not suit your style.
But then again, it may be worth having a go, maybe a short story or even a piece of flash fiction to start with. You could even employ it to write an Electric Eclectic book, why not have a go?
Or maybe you are struggling with a scene or section of your work in progress and I have now come along with this amazing and brilliant idea, one which gives you the next international bestselling book this millennium, or a Booker prize-winning novel?
If this proves to be the case, please keep me in mind when you receive that big royalties cheque.
Honestly, I hope you can glean something from this Rambling, whatever it might be.
I am, as always, open to feedback and comments.
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Thanks for reading, Paul.
You can read some of my short stories HERE
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where you can see my books, my blogs and what I am getting up to right now.