I recently heard two different authors mention writing in the context of cinema and came to the realisation that the conventions and style of modern cinema influence my writing too.
The first of these comments was from historical fiction writer, Hilary Mantel. Whilst I am yet to read any of Hilary’s work, Wolf Hall, in particular, is definitely high on my list of books to consume this year. However, in an interview for Open University, she talked of the way she likes to structure and pace her novels as a deliberate attempt to mimic the inter-cutting of scenes in a film. Her preference for this technique is simply due to the fact that she is so fond of reading fiction that uses this style. As a fan of this type of writing myself, and on objective reflection of my long-form fiction, I find that I also adopt the same approach.
That I am also a huge fan of cinema, and have been since a child, is also a factor, but I do think that many readers of modern fiction also expect this more punchy, direct form of fiction. So, what other writing lessons can we learn from the cinema?
Show, don’t tell!
All but the most novice writer is aware of the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice, but even for more experienced scribes, it’s still an easy trap to fall in to. When writing we spend a great deal of time in the heads of our characters and it is very tempting to overtly express every thought and feeling they are experiencing – ‘Bert was unhappy at having to wait for Jenny’ instead of perhaps – ‘Bert thrust Jen’s coat in to her hand and said, “Come on. We’re leaving.”
Unless the film maker has employed the use of a voiceover to relay his character’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t have the option to tell the audience what’s going on inside a character’s mind. They have to show it, through the actions and reactions of the cast. When revising our texts, we should always ask ourselves if there is a way to show how our characters are feeling through what they do and how they do it. Action really does speak louder than words.
Cut to the chase!
As brilliant as older films can be, many of them do suffer from slow pacing and lots of unnecessary padding, which only serves to take the viewer away from the story that is being told. Modern editing and an audience that has become more sophisticated and cine-literate has meant that fewer shots are necessary. As an example, many films from the 50’s and 60’s might have a character stating he is going to travel across town to see his contact at the newspaper office. We would then see him leave the hotel, hail a cab, see at least some of the cab ride, see him arrive at his destination, pay the cab driver, go in to the building . . . . and eventually he would be walking in to the office of the newspaper editor. The modern equivalent would cut out everything after the character has said where he was going, before rejoining the action (perhaps with an establishing shot of the newspaper office) as our protagonist takes a seat in the office. Depending on what the purpose of the office scene was, we may even cut to the end section of their conversation – the piece of information, or character development that we really need to get on with the narrative.
Exactly the same principle can be applied to our writing – get in to a scene as late as you can and get out again as soon as you have achieved your goal. The same goes for redundant characters and details. Unless a character advances the plot, or is a foyle for your protagonist – perhaps as a way to illuminate a new part of their character or motivation – lose them.
Grab the popcorn
The final cinematic nugget I gained was from Keith Morley, an author from my critique group. During a critique of a fellow writer’s short story he suggested that the best way to test some of the theories I have outlined is to take the whole thing very literally. To actually imagine that you are taking a seat in the local cinema and there, on the big screen, your scene is playing out in front of you. Are you happy with what you see? Does the dialogue sound wooden? Do the actions of your characters seem natural and flowing? Would your protagonist really stand up so abruptly, mid sentence? Do you actually need so much exposition? Most of all – is it a film you would pay to watch?
This was a great piece of advice and is an effective way to try to objectively see the scene you are working on.
So, by all means, keep reading and writing, but do make some time to go to the flix once in a while. It can do wonders for your writing.
What are your thoughts on how film and other media can influence your writing? Do you have any other examples to share?
This was my 6th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – G is for Gold! Why I love Treasure of The Sierra Madre.