Don’t Just Read More, Watch More

camera and book
If you look closely you can read two pages from Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

This entry was inspired by a piece on my friend Rachel’s website celenagaia.wordpress.com. Check it out here. Follow her on Twitter @Raishimi

Writers are always told to read more. Read enough good stories and one might rub off on you. Don’t worry about taking notes. Don’t worry about deconstructing the text. Just read for pleasure and your subconscious will absorb everything in the background. The meaning will be found for you. Take your imagination for a walk and your subconscious will count the steps.

Let the story pass by. Read it on autopilot. Don’t worry about following the plot. The twists will present themselves in due time. You’ll recognize the land marks and feel brilliant once you arrive at your destination.

If writing is the act of sending telepathic messages, then reading is the act of receiving. You have to listen to the language before you can speak it. You have to discover someone else’s voice before you can find your own. You have to turn your internal monologue down and let another’s take over.

Enjoy the rising tension as your inner chemist tries to work out the formula. Enjoy the hero’s journey as your inner navigator maps out the terrain. Enjoy the narrative process as your inner computer writes the storytelling mechanics into its code.

Knowledge doesn’t come easy, but inklings do. You’ll get more than just a few by reading. You’ll be led to a revelation and eased into an epiphany. You’ll receive enlightenment just by showing up with your eyes open.

You won’t need to spend years dissecting a writer’s technique. You’ll only need to see it in practice. The information will come like a download from the Matrix. You’ll learn that you don’t have to be an expert to understand the craft. You’ll just have to learn how to spot the patterns. To know what you like and recognize why you like it.

The more times you expose yourself to this knowledge, the more you will retain it.

Enjoy the fantasy world as your inner anthropologist figures out the culture. Enjoy the brevity as your inner editor audits what was cut. Enjoy the payoff as your inner banker spots the investment made all the way back in chapter one.

Great writers read. They flex their writing muscles by letting someone else do all the heavy lifting.

***

Writers like to demonize the TV. The old idiot box, pumping banality to the masses. Network television isn’t writing, it’s formula writing. It’s built around age old, cookie cutter templates.

Every cop drama runs on the same mad lib.

(Detective with strange quirk) is brought on to investigate the death of (corpse with troubled past). Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest solution is the most likely one, leads the (bland underdeveloped supporting cast) to a (smary douche bag from corpse’s past), while the Detective interviews (the corpse’s nearest and dearest). After realizing (detail no one in the audience would’ve caught), the detective gathers all the potential suspects into (a variation on a parlor room). The detective uses (misinformed pop psychology or junk science) to root out the real killer. Turns out (the character with the weakest motivation) did it.

Sorry if I just spoiled every episode of The Mentalist for you.

Network television is just radio with faces. We watch one character from over the other’s shoulder. Than we reverse the shot. Both of them stand unnaturally still, throughout the entire conversation. When the tension rises, ever so slightly. The camera pulls in for a closeup.

Then tuneless synthesizers drone on in the background.

***

What about film?

Until HD smell-o-visions catches on, film is limited to sights and sounds. There will be no sweet aromas paired with the sight of fresh meadows. No smell of charred cinder at the sight of a smoldering ruin. When a character on screen coughs ash, there will be no bitter taste on our tongues.

3D technology hasn’t gotten to the point where it can put textures into our palms. We’ll never run our fingers through the manes of the mammoth beast on screen. We’ll never hold the soil from another planet in our hands. We’ll never know what it feels like to punch a hole through a mountain. The tactile sensations of the world on screen will go unknown to us.

Everything happens through the course of scenes. If an event happened off screen we hear the news through the characters. The only way we’ll know precisely what a character is thinking is if they say it aloud, or if a voice over spoils it.

Writers aren’t constrained by these limitations. We can quote a character’s thoughts, regardless of if they speak them aloud. We can add commentary between the lines regardless of if the subtext hints at it. We can render a verdict on what’s happened, regardless of if we’ve made our case. We can set blinking arrows next to the details we want you to absorb and discard the rest.

We can tell you that someone is a mobster without ever showing you a diamond encrusted watch, white pleated suit, or a gun. We can tell you that someone is a killer without ever showing you a hammer, a blood drenched poncho, and a acid bath. We can tell you that someone is in love without ever showing their face blush, their eyes widen, or their lips part.

We can tell you what’s happened, without grounding the events into a scene, and you’ll just have to take our word for it.

We can tell you, but should we?

Film is a visual medium. It’s limitations force film makers to show instead of tell. Good movies can teach writers how to avoid exposition, which is why I suggest you watch more of them.

Yeah, I said it. Sit your ass on the couch and veg out for the sake of your writing. That’s right, you need put in the some time with the TV too.

Enjoy the dialogue as your inner playwright listens for the subtext. Enjoy the scenes as your inner director works out the characters’ motivations. Enjoy the sights as your inner cinematographer reverse engineers the shots.

Pay attention to where the camera directs your attention. You have the same power in your writing. When a character reaches for a lighter in an insert, you have the same power to describe the lighter in detail to emphasize its importance. When the director moves in for a close-up, you have the same power to draw out your character’s emotions by describing their micro expressions.

Pay attention to the pacing. Do you ever see the people on screen walk into a room, have a conversation, then get up and walk out? Most of the time they’re there and then they’re not. Be the cool person at the party. Enter your scenes late, and leave the scene early. Reread the first and last paragraph of each chapter. If the only purpose those paragraphs serve is to show the characters arriving and leaving, then get rid of them.

Pay attention to the way the director positions the characters. Look at how their movements are blocked. You’d be surprised how often people move around when they’re talking. Not every conversation plays out as an over the shoulder two shot with that inevitable close up. People have hands. Sometimes they emote with them. People speak with their posture.

Think about that the next time you write a page of dialogue without attributing any movement to your characters. If you’re characters aren’t talking on the phone, they’re having two conversations: one with their mouths and another with their body language.

Pay attention to the structure of films. You can set your watch to the plotted out events of a ninety-minute movie. The break in the routine will happen at least ten to fifteen minutes in. The second act will start within the first half hour. It will end about an hour and ten minutes in. The climax will happen with five to ten minutes to spare.

Movies are a crash course in three-act structure, and you know me, I advocate putting a three-act structure in the cover letter of your resumé. I advocate putting a three-act structure into casual conversations. Hell, my best Tweets have a three-act structure to them.

Our memory is programed in three-act structures. If writing is telepathy, we should write our thoughts to be remembered.

So pop some popcorn, dim the lights, and learn.

The best writers read. They say, “The book is always better than the movie.” I urge you not to write that movie off. Most film adaptations disappoint because of what they gut from the story. Others succeed for that exact reason. The medium forces screenwriters to cut exposition in favor of scenes. To only show and never tell. To use their limited timeframe to choose the most important events and make them count. Aspiring novelists should do same.

The best writers read, but the clever ones watch movies too.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Just Read More, Watch More”

    1. I thought The Mentalist started strong. It borrowed from Derren Brown’s mentalism routines and repurposed them for crime fighting. I think I can pin point the exact moment in season 2 when they ran out of Derren Brown tricks to rip off. That’s when the show started coasting on its formula.

      Forumla writing isn’t always bad either. The X Files had a perfect formula that left plenty of room for exploration.

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  1. Hi Drew 🙂

    I agree that writers should watch more movies. Having said that, I think that a distinction is called for i.e. All films are NOT created equal – much like television – much like novels.
    Generically speaking:
    ▶ Auteur films are intellectually and technically superior to blockbusters;
    ▶ Independent Network Shows (like Californication and House of Cards) are intellectually and technically superior, and they are story and character driven. Network shows, on the other hand are written around commercial breaks; and
    ▶ Literary novels are intellectually and eloquently superior to your general bestsellers.

    So, while your argument has merit, I think it’s missing an important link. Perhaps the real argument should be advocating writers to study film (even if it’s a basic film technique crash course) because without that knowledge you can’t tell the proverbial ‘shit’ from ‘shiola’ 😉 For example, I love film – I always have, but I never fully appreciated the art of film, and the art of storytelling via the medium of film, until I studied Film.

    When I first studied film in 2004, I suspected that learning technique might ruin the pleasure of watching, and, for a short while, I watched film with a technical eye. But, once I cleared that initial hurdle, I began the process of absorbing the real message. I began to see the art. Much like those enigmatic 3D images – undecipherable at first glance, but, after close examination an image magically swims into focus.

    When you learn film technique you learn the importance of placement in each frame – mise-en-scene. There will never be anything superfluous in a frame. Everything is there for a reason. Each frame holds a clue – whether that be about the character, the storyline, the mood, the world in which the characters occupy etc. How does that translate to writing? Well, Leonard Cohen famously says; “I tend to leave out the bits people skip”. This is what film teaches you as a writer.

    Fast forward 6 years and I am now a very different, and highly selective, Film and TV watcher. Most Hollywood movies and Network Television are fodder for the masses. I simply cannot endure them because they’re predictable, commercially-driven and technically uninspired. I am also a very different writer. I honestly believe that Film studies taught me more about writing than English did. Post film studies, I tend to visualise each scene as a frame, attentive to the tactile, sensual world of the character and the narrative mise-en-scene of each chapter and/or scene. Thanks to film studies, I am far more aware of those bits that people tend to skip…

    So, you’re absolutely right, Drew, the more quality Film and TV you watch, the richer your storytelling techniques will become.

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    1. I love it when comments are a piece onto themselves. Especially when they add so much to the topic. Thank you so much.

      You’re so right. Writers ought to study the best examples of cinema, the one’s that play to the medium’s strengths. Taking a film theory class is a great way to do that.

      I’d suggest that writers get their hands on the viewing curriculum we had at MCTC.

      Watch Michelangelo Antonioni to learn subtext. To see the plot beneath the plot.
      I like Blow Up, and Red Dessert.

      Watch Ingmar Bergman to get a fantastic sense of dialogue, even if you don’t speak Swedish. I really like Smiles of a Summer Night.

      I’m a sucker for Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon’s dialogue too.

      Watch Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch to get a sense of how the story can be told through cinematography.

      Okay, I’ve got to stop listing suggestions or this will become a post onto itself.

      Like

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