A century-plus of humans viewing cinema has forever altered the ways in which we all perceive and receive our stories. Consequently, that century ought to show some effect on how we craft our stories, too.
Not that the playbook filmmakers use ever could – or ever should – be deployed in full by storytellers in other media. Such as we embattled prose writers.
But those of us who seek to energize our stories in print should certainly pause to take a serious gander at cinema’s toolkit. Overlooking that box of nifty gadgets j-u-s-t might be to our detriment.
Optimal devotion to our craft, perhaps even wisdom, suggest we award the mechanics of silver screen achievements a diligent dose of scrutiny.
Finales with a Flourish
First, take a moment to recall the power of novels: Sydney Carton riding a tumbril to the guillotine at the end of A Tale of Two Cities; Robert Jordan lying in the pine grove, awaiting the fascist patrol, at the close of For Whom The Bell Tolls; a suddenly orphaned lad joining up with the Veteran and his family at the somewhat-less-bleak finale of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road.
Now think films: Rick strolling off into the fog with Captain Renault at the end of Casablanca; Evelyn Mulwray hitting the button of the horn of her coupe with her forehead at the close of Chinatown; warrant officer Ellen Ripley air-locking the monster into space, saving herself and Jones the cat in the finale of Alien.
Impressive endings, all.
Yet the route taken to denouement in the novels cited just above seemed broader, fuller, and more linear (perhaps even tardy) than in the films. More, um, prosaic, if you will. This is not to say one is right and the other wrong. But writers should be aware that modern story consumers have been conditioned to expect a far more propulsive story development.
If we could create one by summoning a single virtue, I think it would be “efficiency.” In other words, fewer words. Make your lines of verbiage do greater work.
As the cliché has it, language tells, whereas film shows. But within the elliptical eye of a Venn diagram where the circles of both media workshops overlap, there lies a realm of suggestion.
And as every busking magician treading a sticky boardwalk in a beachfront tourist town knows, the realm of suggestion is where a whole big bunch of storytelling enchantment can occur.
Layers of Suggestion
In films, pivotal suggestion chores are cumulatively addressed by the actors, director, cinematographer, sound editor, and hell, I dunno, the best boy and key grip too! Each second of film offers a viewer multiple layers of impressions due to all the joined efforts, so they affect and effect the telling of the story simultaneously. The net result nurtures a pair of powerful forces in storytelling: compression and profluence.
Compression means a lot is done at once; while profluence refers to a swift unfolding of plot that renders the viewer eager to swallow yet more development. And please fill my bag with another serving of that salty hot-buttered popcorn, and pronto! Can’t wait to run back to my seat and see what happens next…
Novels that manage to accomplish such a feat are often starred as “page-turners.” But, spoiler-alert here for thou reading dudes and dudesses, not every book so labeled can ably sustain such a claim. Yet, astoundingly, even dense literary tomes can achieve it, if the author can coax the reader to care about the characters sufficiently. (Lookin’ at you, Tolstoy. Okay, you too, Faulkner.)
In novels, the suggestion chores – and, indeed, all other tasks – must be handled by nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles, gerunds and fancier tools of linguistic spellcasting, like metaphors, allusions, synecdoche, litotes and so forth.
A Reader as Co-Author
In this piece, I more-or-less valorize cinema. But please allow me to point out that prose boasts an inherent strength all its own. It invites and compels and even demands direct participation by readers as they grow to visualize and then comprehend a story. In use of this medium, their involvement turns personal and intimate. A reader’s brain must delve a bit, translate words into imagery and action, and so ultimately co-create a story to arrive at its meaning. In this way you absorb a symbolic reality, yet you’re not force-fed it. You can read at your own pace, and in today’s perfervid and scurrying world, that’s a rare blessing. Not a thing to sneer at.
Prose is more mimetic, more like life itself. Interaction opens the door to experience, and eventually to comprehension. Our best prose encourages a reader to find his or her own way there.
Ride the Wild Roller-Coaster
By way of contrast, a viewer of cinema is injected with many preconfigured impressions at someone else’s idea of a goodly rate, and so said viewer ends up being steered, even driven, at a pell-mell pace toward a story’s core.
From time to time a filmmaker does encourage thinking – i.e. audience participation – but that’s not common. The big modern money-makers, such as blockbusters and superhero flicks, certainly don’t. They’re empty-calorie mind-candy of the most neuron-clogging sort. Spectacle as recreation. Stimulation without a point. Some folks find that restful. I find it a hideously annoying waste of my time.
Ultimately, books and films compete now for the spare hours and scarce attention supply of all of us story consumers. (Narrative video games do so too. But let’s shove that addictive gimmickry aside for a moment. Or forever, if you’d prefer!) If consumers have been educated – or programmed – with a set of expectations by cinema, then it behooves prose storytellers to at least partially satisfy those expectations by borrowing – or actively filching! – certain devices from the realm of film to enhance the appeal and efficiency of their own product.
And that results in fair play. When filmmakers started, they snatched devices from novels and plays to turn to their own ends. They seized upon character building and plot development, as well as three-act and five-act structures, amongst other things.
A Movie-Makers’ Toolbox
Here are some of the screenwriting tricks I suggest prose writers contemplate now purloining in return. Notions like:
- How late can I get into a scene. How early can I get out of it?
- Which of my characters “owns” a scene. Can another character challenge that ownership?
- How many layers can a scene have?
- How much plot work can I make it do?
- How much exposition can I embed in dialog?
- Can my dialog reveal character, backstory, and relationship?
- Can my dialog establish culture and time?
- Can my dialog foreshadow where a character wishes a story will go, or where that character fears it might go?
Develop these techniques, and others shall soon present themselves, such as quick cuts, montages, flashes backward and forward, and so forth.
As a genre, thriller novels display the most cinematic qualities, as revealed in such sui generis aspects as the one-page chapter. Thus, thrillers offer a school where a writer can easily study a hybrid technique.
Cinema-Files of Us Cinephiles
But as a diligent scrivener, also study a more complex and informative school: the book-to-film adaptation. Get a hold of some of the top examples, then examine in depth both ends of each equation. One of my all-time favorites is Ken Russell’s take on the D. H. Lawrence classic, Women in Love. Your bonus there is getting three stellar players, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, interacting in a single flick. And to return to the thriller theme, another worthy example is J. Lee Thompson’s film version of Alastair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone.
True lovers of literature may see such accommodation of film technique in prose as a bastardization of it. And, in my view, that’s a very legitimate fear. Formulaic filmmaking can be as uninventive and stultifying as the formulaic concocting of a pop song. Cram the supposed “virtues” of pop into prose and you end up with pulp.
Yet it doesn’t have to be done that way.
An interesting film, one that didn’t exactly slay at the box office, was a 2013 eco-tage romp, The East. Its lead was actress Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script. (No dis on Ms Brit, but hey, my fave player was the eco-activist incarnated by Ellen Page – damned fearsome and formidable for such a cute little shrimp, particularly in her tense, combative scenes with her industrialist dad.) Since that film, Brit Marling has made additional strides as an actress, screenwriter and producer.
A Brit Bit of Brilliance
She recently published an op-ed in the New York Times in which she scoffs at the limits of playing a strong female lead in modern films. She also offers a hunk of her internal dialog that I’ll blithely reproduce just below.
(I’m engaging in Fair Use here, right? I mean, Brit Marling and the NY Times are gettin’ full credit!)
“Brit, the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement. What does that remind you of?
And I say, a male orgasm.
And she says, Correct. I love the arc of male pleasure. But, how could you bring me into being if I must satisfy the choreography of his desire only?”
Now, I don’t think Brit here seeks to disparage the model of male climax as a dramatic arc. Merely indict its overweening (over-weenie-ing?) profusion in the arts. Beyond that, she’s noting our cinematic storytelling and prose storytelling have a giant amount of space left to explore, terrain in which both media can flourish in fresh ways. She, and we, should want to see more creativity, boldness, and initiative invested in such an endeavor. We should attempt things which haven’t been done much before, if at all.
For instance, what would an arc of a story resemble if it happened to be modeled on a female orgasm? Whether it’s told via a book or in film.
I’m asking for a friend.