07 February 2012

Learning to tell a story

As writers, I know we're supposed to read a lot. A LOT a lot. If we don't read, we won't be good writers, and that's true. However, I think we're missing a tool that will help us as well--watching movies.

Just like there are a lot of bad books, there are a lot of bad movies. That's a given in any creative pursuit to be honest. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. However, while watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night, I realized how important watching movies is to writing.

When you think about it, movies (and for that matter, plays) teach writers about three things: setting a scene, the importance of dialogue and non-verbal cues, and timing. You'll need to hone these skills in order to tell a cohesive and interesting story.

Let's discuss the first one--setting a scene.

This doesn't always require telling about the scenery. A scene consists of surroundings, yes, but it also consists of people, emotions, and relationships. In setting a scene, you're setting the atmosphere. Even if one character is in the current scene, you're setting up for future events, keeping the story moving. Always moving. You're using sensory details--the brush of fabric, scent of flowers or the rain, sounds of people chattering around your character. Write with all your senses, not just what your character is seeing. I know that's been repeated again and again, but there's a reason for that. People don't just experience life by what they see. Lastly, by using relationships, you're helping the reader create a full picture. People interact on a daily basis *most of the time anyway*. Relationships help readers understand character dynamics.

You're setting the scene. You are responsible for helping your reader visualize what's going on..

The second one is probably the most difficult to get right. Dialog can make or break your manuscript because it MUST be believable. If you lose that, then you're going to lose your readers.

Some of the problems I've encountered with dialog:
  • Stilted/stiff. People talk like robots. And unless they're robots, this isn't good.
     EX.  "I am going to the store today."
             "You should not go to the store today. It is going to rain."
  • Tries waaaaaay too hard to be clever/hip. This ends up just being grating. One of the hardest things to pull off is a hip character, and believe me you will and should spend hours working on this dialog if you choose to use it. The most effortless writing requires a lot of hard work and dedication.
     EX. Most of the conversations on NCIS, especially if they involve DiNozzo.
  • Unbelievable. Most people say to write the way you talk. This is all good and well if you're writing a monologue. But what about diverse characters? This is where research comes in, and by research I mean stalking people-watching. Unfortunately you'll have to leave the house for this one.
     EX. Tully is a street-wise ex-gang leader who's decided to get his GED. He is not going to speak like a Harvard scholar. He probably won't use correct grammar, either, not because he's unintelligent, but because that's not how people talk on the streets. There's lingo, phrasing and speech-rhythm to think about.
To craft realistic dialog you'll have to think about those things: lingo, phrasing, and speech-rhythm, ESPECIALLY if your characters are not from your country of origin. Americans don't speak the same way as...well, most Americans, but they also don't speak the same as Brits, Irish, or Germans. Thank God for the internet. You can find transcripts and videos for the style of speech you're looking for, and there's a bevy of websites devoted to lingo and regional colloquialisms.

However, there's also the issue of non-verbal cues. Shifty eyes, fidgiting, hand guestures, that sort of thing. One of my professors said: "When two people are talking, they're not just talking. They're doing other stuff, too." And this is very true. There are facial expressions, gestures, etc. that go into a conversation. And more often, people will say one thing with their voices and say something totally different with their body language. Writing from the senses includes your dialog.

Last is timing. Like comedians, our characters have to have good timing. This means talking over one another, saying that one thing at the most awkward time (especially if you're writing comedy), etc. We're not all polite, so taking turns isn't going to fly in some instances. Arguments especially tend to be heated, with one voice simply trying to overpower the other. This is where everything we've discussed comes in. Emotions, relationships (best friends, antagonist/protagonist, wife and husband, etc), dialog, and non-verbal actions all have a factor in your timing.

I hope this has been helpful, especially since it's taken me like, 3 weeks to write it ;)


Jackie said...

I agree! Watching movies is so helpful in the writing process... and it's a win-win since I love movies. :D

Mandie Baxter said...

Great post. I agree with what you said. And YAY for more movie watching! ;0)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Great post! I have been reading the Save the Cat books lately to help with plotting, and love that movies are so easy to break down into plot "beats"...but also, when I am trying to write a scene, it helps to imagine the big screen version of it (as if)...to get gestures, dialogue, imagery.

(BTW, there is a great Save The Cat scene in Dragon Tattoo!)

M. Dunham said...

So very true, all of it. A good movie will highlight these, and a poor movie will make those incompetencies stand out even more.

In Dragon Tattoo, I enjoyed it so much I didn't notice Craig's lack of Swedish accent until awhile in.

lexcade said...

Thanks so much for commenting, ladies! I really loved Dragon Tattoo. I didn't notice Craig's lack of accent either until it was pointed out. That movie completely sucked me in.

Terri Anne, what's a "Save the cat" scene?