Look for Weight

“Sometimes I don’t have enough laundry to make the minimum weight at Drop Off. I look for stuff to wash. Same with Art. Look for weight, bro.” Playwright John Patrick Shanley.

This tweet showed up today on Twitter. Reminds me of my post from the other day. Weight counts, not volume. “…the plastic-foam peanuts authors sometimes toss into a story to give it volume, without realizing that they’re adding no weight.” That was an observation from NYT reviewer Jennifer Senior on the biography of Margaret Wise Brown.

“Look for weight, bro.”

Here are a few tips from writer  K. M. Weiland. While she’s talking about increasing word count in a skimpy novel, her advice is perfect for adding “weight” to the story. She suggests adding characters. Not for the sake of filling space. You want the characters to enhance the story with their own heft, their connections to the principal characters. “Never add a character just for the sake of adding him, but take a look at the needs of your story and sniff out any likely gaps where a new character could add dimension.”

Weiland also suggests adding dimension to existing characters. Deepen their relationships to the main characters. Or bring in an element of conflict – a strained relationship between characters, perhaps.


Storytelling Tools

Fast Company magazine features an article on the recent film Cameraperson, a documentary self-portrait on the 25-year career of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson.

Cameraperson is “an aptly visual memoir of a cinematographer, who invites us to join her behind the camera and watch as she sets up shots and listen as she interviews people and interacts with fellow crew members.”

“While we see that Johnson is a skilled practitioner when it comes to framing a shot and working with whatever light she has, this documentary is really about using cinematography as a storytelling tool and as a way to connect with people, and what’s most interesting about Cameraperson is seeing how Johnson, while not always vocalizing it, is constantly making on the spot judgments on a variety of matters for which there are no easy answers.”

Cinematography as a Storytelling Tool

More on storytelling tools. Check out a video from No Film School on how composition and framing can help you tell great stories with your cinematography. “If you know the basics of composition and framing, telling great visual stories becomes significantly more attainable.”


storytelling through cinematography is essentially the art of visually depicting change

Article author Robert Hardy says, “One of the key pieces of information that was only briefly touched upon in this video, however, is that storytelling through cinematography is essentially the art of visually depicting change. If your characters go through a major change during the script, let the your cinematographic choices reflect that change. Let’s say that a character starts out timid, shy, terrified of the world around him. You could start with framings that minimize character size while emphasizing and enlarging the environment around him. Wide angle lenses are fantastic for this purpose. Then, as the story progresses and the character becomes more confident, your framings and lens choice begin to mimic that change. Instead of wide angles, you choose longer focal lengths that isolate your character from his foreground and background, and frame him so that he is larger or equal in the frame than the other characters around him.”

Advice for Writers

Think about what Hardy says in his example above. Start with framings that minimize character size. As the character grows and changes, choose longer focal lengths that isolate your character from his foreground and background. How would you do this on the printed page? Minimize your character, then mimic growth by moving away from wide angles. Great technique for “framing” a character’s growth.

Every character should want something

In one of her Brain Pickings online posts, Maria Popova spotlights storyteller Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing a great story.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I find tip #3 easy to forget. Every one of my characters should want something. Every one. It’s easy to overlook when I’m writing. Characters can become fillers, like background in a movie. They’re in the scene, talking, acting. But not always wanting something. Not always hungry. Not going somewhere.

If my writing is working, the hunger is there. If I have done a thorough character profile before I start the story, the want, the desire, will reveal itself. But there are times when I have to stop to look for the hunger: what does this character want now, in this moment? The character may be desperate to find a lost sibling, for example, but what does he want this morning, when he gets up? Breakfast? Coffee? A shower? Or does he wake up so anxious to meet with an investigator that he skips food and even a shower?

Every character should want something.