Good fiction sets off a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind. -- novelist John Gardner
When I write a screenplay, I describe a movie that's already been shot. -- screenwriter Robert Towne.
2006 is shaping up as a banner year in quality fiction -- quite the crop of heavy-hitters, with new novels released by Ishiguro, Roth, Cormac McCarthy, one bonafide "new" masterpiece (the late Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise), the long-awaited second novel by Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) imminent and even Pynchon's next gigantoid tome due in December.
But it's truly been a stellar year in books about writing. Sure, how-to and critical screeds are ubiquitous, but I doubt we're going to do better any time soon than 2006's one-two knockout punches of 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and now, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.
I've already touted the Smiley here, which is a massive work to savor and graze through over time. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them is a book I inhaled in a couple of days.
The simple premise of Prose on prose (sorry, that was unavoidable) is: to learn how to write, read the masters. Not an unheard of supposition, and the fun here arises from "reading along with Francine" and getting into her expert, savvy analysis of different craft issues as they arise in writers as diverse as Chekhov and Gary Shteyngart. But I couldn't help thinking, as I read (in between gnashing teeth and rending clothing over how my own fiction seemed to diminish, page by page, in comparison), that I've yet to read a cinematic equivalent, a "Watching Like a Filmmaker" book that would do the same for screenwriters.
For example, Prose quotes Chekhov on how a telling detail can totally enliven and illuminate the reality of a transcribed moment:
"You will get the full effect of a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam, a little glowing starpoint flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round black shadow of a dog emerged and ran..."
Similarly, here's a bit from Shane Black's opening screenplay page of The Long Kiss Goodnight:
A bed, dappled with moon shadow. A LITTLE GIRL, fast asleep...
And there's MOM, kneeling beside her. Vague shape in the dimness. The full moon throws light across one sparkling eye.
Painting with light -- the same principles apply. God in the details, whether at the service of art or box office.
I've been teaching a course in Cinematic Storytelling at UCLA Extension that's all over this turf. The premise is, following the Robert Towne edict quoted above, that screenwriters should see the movie in their minds and then get these visions on the page, i.e. write scripts that fully utilize the whole arsenal of filmic technique (lighting, editing, set design, et al), so that a reader "sees the movie" as well. It's kind of a crash course in film direction and filmmaking for writers.
The seemingly heretical (to some) subtext here is that a screenplay can be pre-directed -- that instead of "leaving the visuals to the director" (let alone the aurals, thematic image systems, etc.), the alert and imaginative writer can imbue his/her writing with enough use of the medium to hand any director a fully realized vision on a platter -- to make a script, in a sense, moviemaker-friendly and/or director-proof.
How? Without hideously over-writing, and alienating prospective talents? I'll show you in microcosm, with an example I employed in Writing the Romantic Comedy. Here's a way to suggest how the camera should deal with a character's dramatic entrance in an imaginary movie -- without ever using one word of camera terminology:
At the far end of the cavernous ballroom, the silhouette of a tall thin figure appears in the doorway.
It's clear how Bean "Pole" Baxter earned her nickname as her heels pause on the threshold and the silver barette in her hair grazes the top of the doorframe.
The tiny crescent-moon scar under her left eye seems to glow in the light from the open door.
Obviously, that's long shot, medium shot and close-up. But not only are the camera positions merely implied, there's still plenty of room for inventive directors to do with it what they will (e.g. though the separation of lines on the page suggests a 1-2-3 cutting pattern, a Scorsese-like "Look Ma, no hands!" show-off might choose to whiz from long to close in one virtuoso tracking shot or zoom).
All of this has been on my mind of late in the wake of looking at the late Sven Nykvist's work, because he made choices in his lighting and shooting that were, on some level, much like the revisions and re-interpretations of a master screenwriter working on a draft.
Coincidentally -- better, synchronistically -- I just perused a dialogue going on in the scribosphere between Mystery Man on Film and the Unknown Screenwriter (and their readers) that got me thinking about this from another angle. Mystery Man's manifesto posits in part that screenwriters ought to share more about their craft issues, competition be damned; Unknown's worthy rant in response notes, along the way, that screenwriters would do well to school themselves in how to create solid, movie-able concepts, with niceties of craft a secondary consideration.
Amen to all of that, I say, but what it brought up for me is an ever-present issue in teaching screenwriting and storytelling. Sometimes -- an uncomfortable truth that must be told -- I find that I'm trying to teach finer points of craft to writers who have yet to grasp fundamentals. So what's the point? If a writer doesn't even know how to construct a working story, isn't talking to them about "painting with light" like rearranging window seats on the Hindenburg?
These are the kinds of thoughts (among others) that keep one up at 3 a.m. on an insomniac night, and Unknown's post brings them out in the clear light of day. But having had some time to muse on Why We Do What We Do, I offer this defense of teaching cinematic storytelling, in the form of three observations about its purpose and application.
1) Screenplays are a sell. The old "screenplay as blueprint" saw is a valid one, and what any screenwriter's trying to do when they go out with a script, is convince readers that there is a movie there. So any technique a writer can apply that will enable a reader to see a movie is a valuable one.
2) Visions are viral. The imaginative screenwriter wants to get across his/her personal vision as clearly and specifically as possible. If you use filmic technique on the page -- editing with sentence syntax, set-dressing with a carefully chosen adjective, etc. -- you up your chances of the reader seeing the same images you see in your head. An imaginative vision engagingly expressed plants that exact vision in someone else's mind.
3) The medium is the message. Finally, writing with light -- dealing in images -- speaks to the very heart of film. If you can use a color to express a thematic idea, you're using the medium in the way it was meant to be used. If you employ rhythm to create mood, use an active, vivid gesture to express character... that's moviemaking. Using exterior elements to express an inner life is central to what cinema is about (as opposed to fiction's ability to write from the inside out), so... why not learn how to do it well?
So see like a screenwriter, I say. Watch like a filmmaker. Whether Scott Silver, the screenwriter of 8 Mile, used the words that suggested these images to cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro (in collaboration with director Curtis Hanson), is actually moot; what's important, in terms of deepening your craft, is what the images suggest to you, for your work to come. What words would evoke your characters as say, shadows before the blaze?
What words would suggest say, the light of love bursting between them?
Study the visions of light that a Nykvist, Storaro and Willis have set before us. How would you utilize what illuminates their imagery, to make your own dreams real?
The significance of a dream, we're told, has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.
-- Gregoire Bouillier