I love film.
Yeah, okay, that might seem like an odd thing to say on a blog pretty much dedicated to writing and novels and such, but it’s true. I adore film. I’m nuts about costuming and lighting and how they build sets. I could spend days analyzing the color schemes they use for the characters’ clothes and the meaning of every facial expression the actors portray.
I love the technical side of film-making, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I’m really into watching commentaries, especially director commentaries. I like to hear what they’d meant for every scene. Why did they choose that particular angle? Why that kind of lighting?
If you know me at all, you probably know that I’m a bit of an enormous Firefly fan (TV show by Joss Whedon, for the uninitiated). I’m actually in the middle of watching his commentary with Nathan Fillion (actor who plays the hero of the show) about the show’s pilot. Yes, I paused the video to type this article up. What can I say? When I get the urge to write something, all else must stop.
There’s so much I’ve learned about writing from film. Some of it, yes, does come from reading film scripts. But a lot of it comes from commentaries like this. It’s a beautiful thing to hear someone break down their story for you, and I wish authors had the same opportunity. Am I the only one who would pay to read some kind of “author commentary”? Maybe a book that had the regular story text but had author’s notes stuck in in a different color or in footnotes or whatever? I think that would be amazing.
In the mean time, though, I guess I’ll stick with director commentaries.
One thing I’ve learned is the physicality of a character. I’m a great lover of dialogue. It’s something I put a lot of focus on—a book or TV show or movie with unrealistic dialogue will turn me off like nothing else.
I admit, though, that my focus on dialogue sometimes leaves me with characters who say too much but forget to express themselves through their actions. I’m not talking about big actions, like showing a guy is brave by having him lead the assault or whatever. I’m talking about little things, like a touch on the hand or a shifting of the weight or a hug between two characters when one simply goes limp.
But if TV shows and movies have taught me anything, it’s the art of saying as much as you can with as little as you can. Every look is loaded. Every movement counts. If it’s not important, it’s left on the cutting room floor.
In general, good books are the same way. In my revisions, I muddle around, moaning and groaning about the little details. But then I watch a well put together movie and all of a sudden, I remember the big picture. Wasteful dialogue? Gone. Cute but meaningless scene? Cut.
I think it was actually Joss Whedon who once mourned the cutting of some scenes from his movie, Serenity, but in the end said that they had to be sacrificed to that all-powerful god of story-telling: Momentum.
That really hit a cord with me. I’d been struggling with the pacing in HYBRID for a while, and this really helped me figure things out. It also helped me figure out what was “wrong” with many of the stories I’ve read but put down or not enjoyed.
A story needs momentum. Things must move ever forward. Yes, the reader/audience needs time to breathe and reflect, but things can never grow stagnant.
That is the most important thing. Of course, a story that’s all plot momentum and no character interaction or emotional attachment, etc, doesn’t tend to do well (though I’m sure we can all think of a story or two that is exactly that and still manages to do just fine in the eyes of some…)
As always, it’s a balance. Writing, I’m coming to learn, is an everlasting struggle between saying too much and saying too little. One is as bad as the other, but if you manage to hit that perfect spot…
Well, you get something rather magical.
I’m off to watch the rest of this commentary, then. Then maybe I’ll try to get in a little revising. Gotta keep searching for that sweet spot :]
Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–recently sold to Harper Children’s. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.