Monday, October 8, 2012
Story as Movement.
I can only try and explain how I write my own, which may be entirely useless to another writer who may not think in the same exact terms. As for why, I think it just works for me.
When I started off, I must have known something about storytelling. Yet I knew absolutely little about writing, the style, the punctuation, the layout, the format, and virtually nothing about the writing industry or even the craft of writing.
I did know something. I learned it in a strange and surprising way. Back in the ‘80s, my mom had a certain make of VCR, and on the remote was this button. It was fast forward, but the pictures stayed onscreen while it scrolled through at a high rate of speed. There was no sound, just the swishing of tape going onto the plastic reel.
What I saw was movement. There were people coming out of buildings and going down streets. There were people getting in and out of cars, driving places, standing in rooms while other people came and went. People would yell and wave their arms around. They shot at each other, and ran back and forth. In some strange way, you could even follow the basic plot. Just like an old silent film, but without the chalkboard with cues to the audience and short bits of what passed for dialogue back then. There wasn’t even a honky-tonk piano player to give it emphasis, or to tell me what emotions to feel.
I learned a lot about storytelling by watching television. As a kid I watched uncritically, as an adult my needs changed but TV and film really didn’t. What bothered me most was things that simply weren’t possible, or not logical, or even just unlikely. Fiction, whether on the printed page or on a screen, static or moving, requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Unlike real life, in some way it has to make sense—it has to hang together long enough for the reader to buy into the illusion.
Once past that point, anything is possible. When I began to supply the next line of dialogue before the actors even spoke, and when I started nailing it a good percentage of the time, that is when I became critical of TV. It was when I read a book, and found something wrong with it, that’s when I started to get the idea that maybe I could write a book, or that maybe I should become a writer.
My storytelling is cinematic. It involves a whole lot of different perspectives on a common scene. It results in one character being featured, and in the next paragraph some other character advances the story. In a weird way, head-hopping, both in separate chapters and in the same scene involving multiple characters, is a kind of movement—we move the reader from one point of view to the next. It often happens quite quickly. I know there are ‘rules’ in writing. Our craft involves breaking every rule that we are competent to break…if we can pull it off successfully.
If we were to take one of my books and make it into a movie, it would be easy to create the scenes from the point of view of film, or motion. As for TV, much of that is kind of static—it’s a lot of people standing or sitting around in a room setting up jokes and gags. That’s why the camera cuts back and forth for people’s reactions. It is a kind of artificial movement. That’s true of almost any situation comedy we might care to name. An action-situation comedy simply doesn’t exist. You have to go to adventure-drama to find anything where figures move against bigger landscapes and backdrops.
Think in terms of film. The director has to set up the conflict. He almost has to show the shadowy murderer stalking the unwary victim. That has to be shown from several different points of view. The camera keeps moving, rather than just sit on top of a building, watching the whole chase in one big, panoramic long-shot that never cuts to a different scene, time or place.
Because the readers have seen more films, TV shows, plays or videos than I ever will, I think it’s safe to trust their perceptions.
Remember the big scene in the opening of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ directed by David Lean, where Omar Sharif comes riding across the desert, and the bloody thing takes like eight minutes or something God-awful like that?
We really can’t get away with writing like that. It only takes one line, doesn’t it?
“Omar Sharif rides towards the camera for eight minutes from far way across the desert.”
No one wants to take eight minutes to read such a scene or time it on a stopwatch before going on to the next bit. Film has sound, movement, colour, and music, and all we have as writers is the written word, fixed on the page.
Story is movement, among other things.