I’m typing this just before I leave to see one of the "blockbuster" movies coming out during this holiday season. Many films are timed to open during the next couple of months so that they can be eligible for award consideration, so the selection these days is varied and abundant.
Anticipating seeing "Lincoln," (my movie of choice today), I thought I’d talk today about fiction writing and a very specific way of filtering that "movie in the mind" to better hone story telling and characterization.
The concept of translating the "movie in the mind" to a novel, novella, or shorter story is a powerful one. Movies are by their nature action-packed, and when told on the big screen, they take on an epic quality even if the story involves only two characters. Sweeping scenes, broad emotions, and long passages are the things that hook us into sitting and watching – or sitting and writing. But forever lengthy storytelling can become unwieldy and dilute the impact of a very worthy tale.
This is where the "secret weapon" of moviemakers comes in, and where we can glean some very worthwhile food for thought and action. After a scene has been shot and a movie "in the can," comes the shirt-sleeves-rolled up work, the place where the story truly gets told: The editing room.
I’m not talking about rewriting in this context, that is, I’m not addressing the need to rework scenes, characters, plot points, or even changing the setting of a work. The editing to which I refer is more about establishing the pacing, featuring (however briefly) the small details that illustrate big points, and sculpting the work as it stands so that it can be three-dimensional, even if the words physically lie flat on the page.
Editing in this sense is carried out by watching the movie, and then coming in close on specific points that tell a bigger tale. For example, perhaps you like the initial description of your heroine. She’s petite, brunette, blue-eyed. Now, "movie-edit" and look at several possible "shots" that you can use to more precisely and uniquely describe her. Is one shoulder slightly lower than the other, perhaps indicating she’s carried a heavy load (a briefcase?) a long way for a long time? Is there even lighter hair coming in at her roots, indicating a transition from brunette to arriving middle age? Even if she appears calm at the start, does she have a characteristic fidgeting habit with her fingers indicating some tension underneath? As with picking which shots to use in a movie, in a book, pick out helpful details and use them in description, too.
Cinematic editing is also important when deciding where a scene begins and ends. We’ve all had the experience of not knowing, for example, how to close out a critical scene, with the result that the conversation or action becomes diluted from too much indecision. A masterful editor knows exactly when to "cut," often timing down to a second. This takes practice. A useful exercise is to take a scene that you feel is too long and cut it a few times at different points. How does each cut affect the flow? Tension? Impact? Practice makes perfect!
In movie editing, many aspects of the work come into play, and the same is true for a book. For example, movie editors are conscious of where music comes in and how it builds a scene. Think about this next time you’re going over your work. What music do you hear and when; that is, what background do you have in your scene that fleshes out either the characters or the setting? Also, how is the continuity from one scene to another? Are you sure that your hero remains brown eyed throughout, or that the local bakery is just that and doesn’t transform to a bookshop halfway through the book?
As you watch movies this holiday season and beyond, notice the editing – where cuts are made, which shots are used (where the focus is placed), and how music and other background elements play in telling the story as a whole. Then see which of these tools might help you go beyond the movie in your mind and arrive at a work that is multidimensional, compelling, and true!
Blessings to you!