Apply film techniques to fiction-writing
Published: February 26, 2010
In the April 2010 issue of The Writer, Meredith Sue Willis described how to apply film techniques to fiction-writing. Following is some additional material from her on this topic.|
Before & After
• ProblemIn the first draft of my book Billie of Fish House Lane, I wanted to have the young narrator and her friend do some spying on an empty building across the canal from where they lived. I was trying to do a lot of things at once: to explore the relationship between the girls, to capture what the narrator was experiencing—but also to give the reader a reliable mental map of the landscape that would be needed for future scenes in the book.
I wanted readers to be able to picture the relative positions of the kids’ little homemade shanty (“Surveillance Place”) and the canal and a warehouse. As I wrote, the canal kept changing widths, the warehouse seemed to shift which side was toward the canal. Things felt out of order and in the wrong places.
Although the novel was in first person, I visualized this scene from beginning to end, from the outside, as if it were a movie. For example, I counted a reasonable number of strokes it would take to row across the little canal. As I visualized this, I realized that there would be weeds and muck where the kids landed the rowboat, and that gave me some new ideas. Once I had the whole scene clearly in mind, I could concentrate on Billie’s experience:
I had to push off [the boat], and I tried to do it and jump into my seat and also keep my sneakers dry, which didn’t work very well at all. “You row,” I told Eutreece. “My mom will kill me if I ruin the sneakers.”
My mother goes bananas if you mess up new stuff. It’s bizarre, because she always says Material Things Don’t Matter. Then she throws a fit if you get a speck of dirt on the floor or mud on your new sneakers.
Eutreece rowed straight across the canal. It only takes about four strokes, and she gave one last big one that shoved us into the weeds. She got out and pulled us up a little more, and then I carefully swung my feet over so I missed the water—and sank right into mud up to my ankles. “My shoes are ruined, Eutreece. I might just as well forget it!”
“Shh! You can wash your shoes,” she said. “We have to be quiet now, we don’t know who’s here. We have to sneak.”
She is a genius of sneaking. She can hold perfectly still for so long you almost forget it’s a human girl there. Meanwhile my whole self was sweating and itching and feeling muddy water squelch in my formerly new sneakers.
There was a flat area between us and the warehouse. This side of the warehouse is as blank as a piece of paper, and there wasn’t anybody over here anyhow, but we still froze for a long time while Eutreece looked one way, then the other. Then we ran for the building. I ran so fast that I slammed up against the wall and stung my hands. We held ourselves flat to the wall and waited. Then Eutreece pointed with her chin. She wanted to go around the corner to the pile of barrels and metal that you can see from Surveillance Place.
If you have problems finding a good story line for your fiction, consider taking a class in screenwriting in your local area. There are also online screenwriting courses, like the ones offered by New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies or the New York Film Academy.
Some other suggestions:
• If you don’t want to commit the time and money for a class, take a look at some of the many books on the principles of screenwriting and related topics, such as The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives, by Lajos Egri, and Screenwriting From the Heart, by James Ryan.
• Examine some passages of fiction that use cinematic techniques. Look, for example, at the third paragraph of the opening chapter in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The first chapter of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (www.eserver.org/fiction/portrait.html) has a long panoramic opening. It might also be instructive to compare one of Elmore Leonard’s many novels to one of the films made of his books, such as Get Shorty the book and the movie.
• My resources-for-writers Web page is frequently updated and has some links to ideas about using film techniques in fiction writing, and my book Ten Strategies to Write a Novel has chapters on these issues.