Monday, March 06, 2006

The Writer. The Filmmaker, the Mediums

So for the last week I’ve been working on the puzzle of camera-ready impact in writing: Can you recreate the power of the simple scene (like the one with Fett) in the medium of writing, without losing the energy in translation.

Tim and I discussed it over one of several dinners out and a long Saturday afternoon lunch. I started to cast around to other mediums to see if there were similar events: intense amounts of information communicated in a subtle, yet powerful manner. I came to music. Songs have a sub-text: beyond the lyrics there is a layering of sound. The words may reach you, but the combination of notes, speed (a.k.a. meter), key, enhance that communication. So the message is relayed several times over. Song construction was similar to film, where elements such as lighting, position on screen, movement of event, all come across at the same time as the main visual image and/or, any dialogue or sound.

With all the discussions rattling around in my head, yesterday, I went to a friend’s house. She’s a member of the Fellowship of Isis, and into the Egyptian pantheon. The Egyptian myth of Isis, Osiris and Horus figures heavily into the backbone of my next book, so we thought: hey, let’s get together, and use some Egyptian based oracles and see if anything interesting pops up. She had a deck of Egyptian based cards, similar to Tarot in that it used visual imagery based on a specific magical and mythic system to help stimulate connection. I did a few Tarot readings with my Rider deck for another woman there, and then Cella sat down with they Egyptian deck to do me. The convergences were incredible, so much that came up directly fit to the book. That could be because the book runs around one of the cornerstone myths of the Egyptian system, but still, to be so focused with such random odds…anyhow, let me not drift off into math speak.

As she read the meanings ascribed to each card, I scribbled down a heap of additional fodder for the cerebral cannon. We looked at 15 cards in all. The first card out, however, was the most eerie. It depicted the Four helpers of Horus, all as heads on canobic jars. The catalyst event for the story is the theft of four recently unearthed canobic jars. Later, we sat down in front of a fire, while my husband helped her husband fix the kitchen plumbing. As I relaxed in the good company, had a gin martini and listened to a lecture on knitting, I found I still couldn’t get the symbols of the canobic jars out of my head. The cards themselves also weighed on my mind. They were quite unique, and very different from the standard Tarot decks and even the non-standard decks I’ve used. I thought I might incorporate these cards into a program I’ve given on using Tarot archetypes to enhance character creation. I figured I might expand the program into one that explored using archetypal images to stimulate creativity, and problem solve in writing.

And in typical “Six steps to Kevin Bacon” fashion, the answer hit me. You can indeed create the same immediate and intense impact in writing as in film, through the use of archetypal images and themes, playing them through your subtext, and reinforcing them with specific word choice. You need to select rich words, but words that also evoke responses consistent with your arcs, and themes. You need to select rich actions for your protagonists, and your antagonists, that touch the reader in the deepest parts of the cellular memory, that communicate the subtext loud and clear, but not belabored or over-described.

I think this is why the category length books stick to such a pat formula with key story arcs (Secret baby, Cowboys, Cops, Reunion Romance, etc.). Sales figures have demonstrated that books with these arcs appeal most to the readers of the different lines. The subtext of the theme reaches the readers on a visceral level. You don’t need to tell the reader that the ‘hero who rescues and falls for and protects the heroine pregnant with another man’s baby is a good provider’. The subtext of the situation speaks volumes. He is the alpha male protecting the female and her child. This is a deep cell instinctual thing: the woman who craves safe haven for her and her child: the man as protector and provider. Just like Boba Fett: Lucas doesn’t need to tell the audience this man is Nemesis, his simple actions speak volumes.

And at last, scene blocking made sense to me. I do what I affectionately call book math. Break the book down into numbers: numbers of pages, pages per chapter, number of scenes, scenes per chapter, words per scenes, characters per scene, per chapter, percentage of book space (screen time?). I worked high level on scenes that I felt pushed the story along, and that helped me reach THE END on the first novel. But I didn't get into actual scene blocking, from the granular level. I used to think that “every thing in your scene must advance the plot or it should be cut” was a load of over-analytical horseshit prattled on at conferences. Sure my scene is necessary, in the global sense. But if you deconstruct it, and look at it's components as all contributory elements to the total story, it makes complete sense. And, it shows you where you and how you can achieve maximum impact. You want each segment of the book to be as powerful as the scenes selected to make up a movie: you want that clear, concise image to carry a message. You can achieve this by focusing on including powerful messages carried via archetypes: conveyed not only in subtext but in economical, and well thought out action of all relevant characters.

Writers ARE under the same mandate as film makers. Don’t bore the audience. Don’t belabor the point. Communicate, and do it with as many tricks of the trade as you can muster. Do it with lighting, staging, placement, dialogue, action. Identify per scene who’s POV we’re going to experience, and don’t make the water muddy UNLESS, it’s to advance the story.

This may sound pedestrian, you may say “DUH!”, but I swear, this is a huge lightbulb moment for me. And once again, like most things in life, it started with Boba Fett.


Larry the Male Fan said...

The frustrating thing, I think, is that we as beginning writers lose confidence before we do the rewriting necessary to make our scenes as "cinematic" as the ones we read by published authors. I tend to write a scene once and then give up, instead of rewriting it again and again.

I can write a whole love scene without ever describing basics on the size, weight, phsyique, hair color, of the hero and heroine! But when I read Lisa Kleypas or Mary Balogh, what blows me away is the painstaking attention to detail. That is what really makes a scene "cinematic" in terms of what the reader can visualize.

Christine said...

As synchronicity would have it, I took a second plunge into McKee's book on Story. He had some really interesting insights, which I'm chewing over and will most likely puke up in some more blog posts: but one really speaks to the painstaking attention to detail. He talks about being true to your character, how it's revealed in choice, and how choice is forced from the character through pressure. Such pressures create turning points, key we know to the scene of screne or book. He also says (and I'm paraphrasing) that you as story teller will amass far more material than you'll use in the finished product. Now, here's me: storycrafting is like distilling a fine whiskey: first you need a whole mess of mash and some fermentation. The end product goes through many filters and the touch of the master brewer. As storyteller, you filter through the tremendous amount of 'stuff' you've accumulated and decide what, placed where, for why, and when, will force the characters into action and decision. What details you show depends on the pov, and being true to your character. I think Kleypas, and Balogh do that: they're excellent character writers, but have a fine eye for detail, one that sees what's (to borrow from Monte Python) 'correct for the idiom' of the character.
Sometimes I think you rewrite, other times you trash, other times you change POV> The key to the scene is it's placement and role in the evolution of the character and the story.
You really should read this book, it's totally intense. My first time out, I felt like I was reading "How to write storys" by "Marcel Proust after the nervous breakdown". Then, my mind must have undergone a transformation, or, a few more braincells died< but I opened it up after pondering my qundry all last week, and the thing actually SPOKE to me by NAME.
Catch you saturday, I can bore you with more of this crazy realization stuff!!