Month: November 2018
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Even if we’re aspiring novelists, movies and television serials can teach us a lot about structure, pacing, and character development. That’s because these facets are constants in storytelling, whatever the form that storytelling takes, e.g. writing movies, writing television, writing stageplays, writing novels, or writing short stories.
But how about visuals? Do the lessons of film-making apply to writing a novel, for example?
We appreciate a good looking movie with gorgeous vistas and beautiful establishing shots. Great filmmakers use angles to communicate the characters’ bearings, relationship dynamics, and emotional states. A lot can be said just in the way a shot is framed.
Often, movies willl open with an establishing shot of where the story is going to take place. Then it might close in on a particular adobe – a house, or a place of work or education. Then it moves into a particular room, where we’ll usually meet our protagonist, or set up the context for the story. We start wide and close into a specific.
This might also happen if the character is examining something. For example, a character wouldn’t know that the journal sitting on the desk is bound in leather, that the spine creaks, and that the pages are yellowed and many of them are dog-eared. The character would have to walk over and interact with the journal. They wouldn’t know about the creaking spine or the yellowed pages immediately. Their first impression would be of the cover. They’d probably even run their fingers over it to feel its texture. When they opened the journal, they’d hear the spine. Then they’d see the pages. Again, there’s that logic at place, that sense of closing in tighter and a sequential unfolding of events.
The exception might be when the focus is on a character who is moving from location to location and the story wants to generate a surprise. In this case, we might see the opposite happen: we’re tight on the character, and then widen the angle so we then know where they are. Often, in film or television, the character might relay an emotional state, e.g. shock. Then we widen for context – we’re prejudiced with expectation, and then the context to correlate to that expectation.
Again, it’s logical. It’s no different to you walking into a new location and taking things in. Think about if you stayed at a hotel. When you walked into your room, you wouldn’t know about the bathroom or the balcony. You’d only be privy to what you can see in that moment, and then get an overview as you explore. You wouldn’t know about what’s in the mini-bar until you opened the fridge. You wouldn’t know what the bed is like to sleep in until that night. You wouldn’t know about the view from the balcony until you stepped out onto the balcony.
This might all seem rudimentary, but lots of people don’t think about how a story unfolds around a character in terms of logical and causal structure. They often write instinctively, but those instincts haven’t been honed by (writing) experience, knowledge, and deliberation. There’s no shape to the spill. This makes it hard for the reader to follow when the viewpoint is jumping to accommodate the writer’s thoughts as they scatter haphazardly across the page.
This is where thinking cinematically helps. Don’t worry about the differences in form, i.e. a film can’t communicate senses such as touch or smell the way the book can, nor can it explore an inner monologue unless there’s a narrative voiceover. But think about the way the visuals incorporate the viewer into the story logically and progressively.
Writing any story is no different. Details should be logical. They should progress and build on a foundation. The reader is taken on a journey which they empathise with, and fit into, because it’s a course they understand unconsciously. There’s no need to question it. That’s one of the most important things in storytelling: the reader can question the characters’ choices and why they’ve made the decisions they have (a good story will often stimulate discussion), but they shouldn’t question why the narrative is skipping around. That loses them as readers.
When you’re writing, visualise the way your story progresses. Think cinematically the way you would shoot it if it was a film.
It will help immensely with narrative structure, and all the details that revolve around the unfolding story and the universe in which it takes place.
November 15, 2018
I take immense pride in writing as a craft, so it annoys me when people trivialise it, consider it a shtick, or don’t take it as seriously as they should.
Let me break down some of the things I’ve heard, the outlook some employ, and how they should actually be looking at it …
I am going to write a bestseller.
You may think you have THE IDEA, and that it’s going to be a bestseller. Guess what? About twenty-five million other writers think the same. You’re not unique in this. But you might think, But nobody’s had THIS idea. No, they have. But not this one. Uh uh. They have. And the reason I can tell you this is because I’ve heard this so many times.
Now I hope you do write a bestseller and you enjoy sustained success, but if your only motivation to write is you think you’ve discovered some untapped get-rich-quick scheme, you’re deluded. You may. You may. I’ll grant it does happen. But it’s rare. Most writers actually either work full-time jobs or part-time jobs to pay the bills, with writing complementing their income.
Write for the passion of it, not the money.
Write because you have a story you want to share with the world.
Write because you’re the only one who can tell that story.
I am writing a book to showcase my expertise!
Great. Fantastic. Showcase yourself and your expertise. You should. A book is a fantastic way to get your message out there. It can travel and represent you in a way it might be impossible for you to physically represent yourself, i.e. a book can go all over the world, whereas you might not be able to.
But a book is not a business card. A business card is one-dimensional. It contains details. A book is three-dimensional. It contains pages. The pages contain YOU. They sell your message. They offer your methodology. They break it down in a simple guide for the reader to follow. If the reader – as a consumer seeking expertise – can’t come to you, then your book can go to them. Your book is your ambassador.
You can use your book to market yourself – that’s fine. But don’t think jamming anything into the book itself will suffice because you’re still thinking of it acting as a one-dimensional product.
Write only what you can write.
Write your message, rather than dilute an amalgamation of messages others are peddling.
Shout your voice out into the world and let it carry your message to readers everywhere.
I want to write an autobiography – I’ve had an interesting life.
Brilliant. Everybody has a story. They mightn’t think it, but every life contains a message that can move, inspire, and change the lives of readers.
But work out what that message is – believe it or not, the good books in this genre have a message. It might seem that they’re just a chronological retelling of the author’s life, but there’ll be a point to it. Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety is an excellent account of his ongoing battle with anxiety. Andre Agassi’s Open is a revealing story of how hollow he found what must’ve seemed a glamorous life to others, and how he grew up to take ownership of his future. A.B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life might encompass the author’s life and detail it chronologically, but it’s about how he overcomes continuing hardship in a new frontier and is grateful for the opportunities.
Messages – everywhere.
But a book shouldn’t be didactic. It shouldn’t be preachy. It should simply (and subtly) be part of the journey.
If you’re writing in this field, give some thought to what your story is.
I’m really interested in writing a history book about [INSERT SUBJECT].
Historians are my favourite author (or authors). Geoffrey Sandy has written three detailed volumes on St Margaret’s Church in Eltham and is still going. The Greensborough Historical Society compiled two volumes of stories about Greensborough throughout its history. The North Balwyn Tennis Club put together a book about the history of their tennis club commemorating fifty years (1962–2012). This list goes on.
And the reason these people are my favourite authors?
They’re NOT going into their projects with the motivation of writing a bestseller, earning riches, or winning acclaim. They are just passionate people interested in sharing a story about something important to them. That is their primary motivation: that passion to record something for posterity and share it with the world around them. What truer reason could there be for writing?
Historically, we’ve always recorded stories, preserving what was for future generations. Usually, it begins on a basic level, e.g. by word of mouth, a parent passing on a story to a child. In school, classes might be about state, national, or global history. In some cases, we might grow more interested in a subject matter and pursue it further, which is why it is important that we record these stories.
A Well-Beaten Message
Take pride in your work, whatever your writing.
Don’t ever believe that your content will compensate for poor spelling, punctuation, or grammar; terrible presentation; or a shoddy product.
As people, we’re critical. When we pursue some form of recreation or education, we want to switch off and be immersed. But the moment we stumble upon an error or something implausible, we become wary. When it happens again that immersion is ruptured, and then we’re on shit patrol. Then we’re hyper-critical. Then we’re looking at finding more problems.
Take pride in making your book the best it can be.
Keep your reader immersed at all times.
When they put your book down, you want them to feel they’ve not only gotten value for money, but that it’s a book they lament leaving – and it’s one they’ll read again and again and again.
Writing is about making that connection.
Don’t let your reader down.
More importantly, don’t let yourself down.