Film and the Written Word

10 May

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.

23 Responses to “Film and the Written Word”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh May 10, 2011 at 11:14 AM #

    Awesome post, Kat! I love to watch my fave films with the commentary on! And your point about “every look is loaded” really made an impression on me. I will definitely go back over my WIP to see what I can leave “on the cutting room floor.” 🙂

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 1:09 PM #

      Thanks, Julie 😀 I’m glad you liked the post.

  2. lbdiamond May 10, 2011 at 11:17 AM #

    Interesting post! Yes, it’s hard to cut scenes and words, however, it’s necessary to keep the plot moving–I agree 100%

  3. Emery May 10, 2011 at 11:30 AM #

    There’s nothing like reading a good book or watching a good film to inspire one to write daringly. Though it’s not a cure all, I often find that when I have difficulty writing, I also haven’t read a well written book in a while, too. That’s when I set down the laptop, go back to my bookshelf, and just read a chapter, two, or maybe the whole book! At the end, I feel refreshed, refocused, reorganized in my mind. I makes me say to myself, “Someone else put this together right, and so can I!”

    I’m watching Lost for the first time. My mom and sister bought all five seasons with the intent to see it all. I’ve seen five episodes, and it’s working out my brain with all the character development. I feel like I should take notes as I write. I have a real weak spot with making more than 4 or 5 round characters in a novel, and I’ve decided to tackle it recently. Lost seems like a perfect example.

    But out of curiosity, since you like film so much, what do you think of Lost?

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 2:16 PM #

      😦 WordPress ate my reply. I’ll try to recreate it, lol.

      What I’d said is that I haven’t seen Lost, though I’ve heard it’s very good. Mostly, I’m afraid I’d go absolutely mad with speculation and whatnot 😛 On the other hand, the show has ended, so at least I wouldn’t have to wait from week to week, but I’ve been told it’s still going to drive me crazy and that I should wait until I’ve got a chunk of time free to dedicate to it 😛

      Also, I’m the exact same way about reading great books for inspiration!

      • Emery May 10, 2011 at 4:34 PM #

        Somehow I’m surprised and not surprised at the same time. Lost is a huge investment, and as writers, we have our own stories to worry about. I honestly can’t say much bad about the show, and since you’re a film connoisseur, you’d probably enjoy it as much or even more, but if you don’t ever see it, I’m pretty sure you’ll survive 😉

  4. Cheyenne May 10, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    Loved this post, Kat! I graduated with a film degree last year, and I treasure every second of my time on that course, picking apart and unpacking so many films and focusing on everything from film theory, the culture a film was borne out of, to how it affects culture and audiences, interpreting every sound (or lack thereof), colour, angle, cut, etc. Despite having a lifelong desire to write, when my favourite author told me (the most amazing day of my life) not to do a degree in writing but rather in some other area that interested me (he claimed writing degrees can interfere with your natural voice), I knew film was the way to go. I think I’ve watched the behind the scenes documentaries of the LOTR trilogy about five times, and I love the commentaries and making-of specials almost more than the films I love themselves.

    I agree with what you said about momentum, and it’s as true in writing stories as it is in film editing or script writing. I’m beginning to realise that’s my biggest pitfall with my WIP but it’s a handy realisation to come to!

    Just finished watching Firefly for the first time and really enjoyed it. I found the film devastating though!

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 2:18 PM #

      Thanks, Cheyenne! A film degree sounds amazing 🙂 I’ve just gotten into film the last couple years, and I’m becoming rather obsessed! It’s sort of like how when you first start writing, and then all of a sudden you read differently. I watch films now and I’m thinking about framing and lighting and guessing where the boom mike is, haha.

  5. Cheyenne May 10, 2011 at 12:02 PM #

    …I should also point out that I want to go back for a Professional Writing MA now that I’ve had a chance studying something *other* than writing, but sadly can’t afford it at the moment. :-/

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 2:19 PM #

      Aww 😦 Some places will give you a stipend, but it’s still not a job by any means…

  6. Stephanie Relf May 10, 2011 at 12:47 PM #

    I love watching directors commentaries, just as much – if not more – I love watching commentaries with the writer and the director (unless they’re the same person) My favourite is probably on the third episode of Sherlock, SO good!

    When you said “authors commentaries” I automatically thought of the Princess Bride where the narrator has a say in all that’s going on, that’s probably the closest we’ll come to that.

    You should totally try to release an authors commentary of Hybrid, with lots of deleted scenes 😉

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 2:22 PM #

      Oooh, I’d love an author’s commentary of HYBRID, haha 😛 It would be quite convoluted, though! The commentary for the third episode of Sherlock is great! I actually haven’t seen many where the writer was on board for the commentary (unless, of course, he was the director), but a writer/director commentary sounds fantastic 🙂

  7. HannahFergesen May 10, 2011 at 12:56 PM #

    I went to film school for four and a half years for screenwriting and directing, but am currently focusing on novels – so I know exactly what you’re saying, and I agree. Screenwriting has helped me focus on that whole “show don’t tell” or, “Observe and report” thing that we’re always been told to be aware of. And creative writing has helped me understanding the balance.

    Great post!

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 4:36 PM #

      Wow, that’s so cool! You ought to write about your experience. I’d love to know what they teach you in film school 😀

  8. Victoria Dixon May 10, 2011 at 1:42 PM #

    I love Firefly, too and pretty much anything by Joss. And I LOVE the idea of being able to comment on your work – maybe that will be a feature some day in e-books? Like, buy the “Author’s Edition” and get commentary tracks. LOL That would be fun. And maybe allow us to read out some of those darlings that didn’t make it.

    • Kat Zhang May 10, 2011 at 4:37 PM #

      Joss writes great stuff 🙂 An “Author’s Edition” books sounds fantastic!

  9. brandimziegler May 10, 2011 at 5:40 PM #

    Firefly is the best TV series ever. EVER! I think a part of me died when I watched the last episode lol. One of my best friends is a film major so I end up watching a lot of commentary as well. It’s great to hear directors’ thoughts about their work and I’m always inspired by how strongly they feel. It makes whatever scene they’re talking about so much more awesome and worth re-watching. Momentum is definitely a must-have. Thanks for pausing your day to post about the subject.

    • Kat Zhang May 11, 2011 at 11:40 PM #

      I love Firefly 😀 Thank you for reading!

  10. Kayleigh May 10, 2011 at 7:04 PM #

    *squeals* I am a HUGE Whedonite! I spent most of my 2-week holiday rewatching Angel, Buffy and Firefly eps with commentary… Joss Whedon’s commentaries are SO awesome. And proof that Firefly is AMAZING? For the commentary of “Shindig”, Morena, Jane and Shawna often got sucked into the episode and stopped commenting.

    Anyway, I also LOVE movies (I’ve even directed/written/shot/acted in my own horror movie–unfortunately we lost certain scenes and couldn’t reshoot…) and I’ve gotta say, I think Buffy has affected my writing style more than any book I’ve ever read… Although maybe not my style, but definitely the tone. For example, my current novel is based on the emotions I feel while watching the Buffy finale, “Chosen.” I want to write something epic, dark, sad, funny…. But my novel is problematic, as River would say. I’ve ended up with, oh, I don’t know… 100+ characters?

    Too epic?

    Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough now. Also, it’s 1 am…

    • Kat Zhang May 11, 2011 at 11:41 PM #

      I need to watch some Buffy episodes with commentary…That sounds pretty amazing 🙂

      That’s SO cool that you’ve done your own horror movie!

      And plus 1000 points for a River quote 🙂 100 characters is quite a lot, lol, but it’s all in the execution, hm? 😛

  11. LoChase May 10, 2011 at 7:23 PM #

    I definitely agree with this post! I’ve taken a few screenwriting classes in college and there’s this entirely different angle I write from when writing a screenplay. I focus more on the emotional pull I want a few words to get across. Before I took those classes I would get bogged down in description and extraneous scenes. It really taught me to cut things out; whatever doesn’t inform the reader and push the plot forward needs to go. 🙂 Great post!

    • Kat Zhang May 11, 2011 at 11:42 PM #

      Thanks! I should look into taking a screenwriting class 🙂

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