I’m reading Norman Mailer‘s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. About 25% of the way in, and I’m finding it a very slow read. My go-to book has always been a thriller, a mystery, a detective story. Action, something needing resolution. And dialogue.
Credit: Mary Richmond
Mailer’s novel is light on dialogue. Pages and pages of first-person POV. The protagonist drives to a patch of earth on Cape Cod, on a bleak November day. “I liked the dull green of the dune grass and the pale gold of the weeds, and in that late autumn panorama when the beef’s blood and burnt orange are out of the leaves, the colors came down to gray and green and brown, but with what a play between! My eye used to find a dance of hues…”
Contrast that with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for good writing. Rule #9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Leonard relied on the strength of dialogue to carry his stories. To paraphrase: Dialogue is showing. It’s not telling. Readers are in a scene and this is one reason it can be so effective and engaging. Good dialogue can do many things. Move a story forward. Reveal character.
Both men are renowned writers. I lean towards the lean.
Donald O’Connor’s physical comedy number Make ‘Em Laugh is one of the most engaging scenes from Singin’ in the Rain.
According to Mental Floss, the 1952 movie was conceived by producer Arthur Freed as a vehicle for showcasing songs he’d written.
It’s said that song-writer Irving Berlin would conceive a movie idea by assembling a playlist of some of his own songs. With about 1500 songs to his credit, that’s a lot of material for making movies.
Writers have the same opportunity. Creating characters is a mainstay of fiction writing. Pull together a list of all of your characters. Write up extensive profiles for each one. Then play with them, shifting them around, pairing them with one another, looking for combinations that lend themselves to conflict and harmony. Create stories by showcasing your characters.
Filmmaker asked McElwee: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
DP Sean McElwee
McElwee: When you’re presented with a script as good as the Jessica James‘ script, sometimes (and this may sound strange) the job as the DP is to sort of get out of the way, not overcomplicate things, and sort of let the story tell itself. Sometimes a really cool shot at the wrong moment can actually diminish the quality of a film – and we always wanted to preserve the nature of the script by approaching the aesthetic as simply and efficiently as possible.
Once again, advice from the filmmaking community translates to fiction writing. At times the author has to get out of the way. Don’t overcomplicate things. Let the story tell itself.
Characters need to move freely. Circulate through the story. Find their own way. Go easy on the plotting, and let the characters grope their way through the story. Their story. It’s okay if they’re walking blind for a while. They’ll find the light. If your writing is any good, it will offer paths for your characters.
A cinematographer works from a script. Enhances the storytelling. The fiction writer creates the story. A strong writer will let the characters create the story.
“Use silhouettes to define characters and situations in an elegant, crystallized visual portrait.”
In a No Film School blog post, Max Winter talks about the way cinematographer Roger Deakins exploits light to “tell a story more fruitfully.” Winter bases his observations on a video essay done by H. Perry Horton.
Build gravity. Deakins uses silhouettes to help the audience understand the deep significance of a simple moment.
Heighten drama. A scene shot in silhouette can “push tension to the breaking point.” Too many details would distract.
Show the weight characters carry. “Consider the silhouette for stories in which morality plays a huge part.”
Applications for Storytelling
How can writers use these film techniques to improve their stories, their character development?
Too many details can distract. Write a scene in stark simplicity. Avoid background details. Center on the character to build tension.
Filmmakers use the extreme close-up for deeply emotional moments. When your book character comes face-to-face with emotion, write the scene simply. Focus only on what your character is feeling, seeing. The writing equivalent of an out-of-focus background. Little or no ambient sound. Describe your character’s face. Describe a simple, telling action.
Maybe it’s all about pacing. Deep emotion requires pinpoint focus.
The premier issue of The Dionysian magazine carries an interview with playwright Marco Calvino.
Calvino said, “Edward Albee once asked me if I was working on something new. ‘I have this idea,’ I started, and he cut me off. ‘That’s your problem,’ he said. ‘Don’t start with ideas. Start with characters.'”
Some writers recommend writing extensive character analyses as you begin writing. Novelist Elizabeth George, in her book Write Away, says, “Once we have begun it, we continue reading a novel largely because we care about what happens to the characters.”
Her writing process: “I write about each character in as much depth as I can manage.” This allows her to develop a voice for him or her. George develops a profile for each of her characters, well before she begins to write the story.
“The beauty of doing the character analyses,” she says, “is that more and more elements of the plot start jumping out at me as I create and explore the characters I’ve generated from my initial idea.”