How being a filmmaker influences my novel writing
Many of us watch more drama and ‘stories’ on TV than read books. Even those of us who read a lot, will watch the film of a book we have enjoyed.
The 21st century reader is screen literate.
Whether we read or watch or even listen to our stories, they all start with words on a page.
Much of our idea about story structure comes from screenwriting; The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat are classic examples.
I spent 2 years at The London International Film School at the back end of ‘80’s and I have often said that I learned to write at film-school, where I was awarded a distinction. I was also a finalist at The Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Science (better known as The Oscars) for the Student Oscar as a Writer / Director of The Letter Writer.
This short film was the springboard for my first novel, The Art Forger’s Daughter, which I didn’t get round to writing until 20-odd-years later when I had cleared the decks and had a career behind me. Part of that career involved devising and teaching a Masters in Filmmaking for Dance at The Place, London. (I had trained there as a dancer before I was a filmmaker.)
By teaching something, you can fully understand the workings of your art form and apply it across other genres. For example, I broke down the art and technique of filmmaking and applied those skills to filming dance, which was still in its embryonic form.
As a creative writing tutor I am now wondering what elements of filmmaking have transferred into to my novel writing.
The most obvious is Creating a Scene
Films are written in scenes; many novelists write in scenes rather than chapters and in both cases, the writer will ask a series of questions:
- What is the primary purpose of this scene? What else can I accomplish with this scene?
- Who is my viewpoint character?
- Which other characters do I need to bring in?
- Is it interior or exterior?
- What unit of time does this scene cover?
- How do we know where we are?
- Why does the scene begin when it does? (Practical and emotional reasons)
- How do I capture the reader’s attention?
- What would the soundtrack be doing at this point?
- What events are vital to this scene?
- How can I use this scene to trail future actions or events?
- What is the hook at the end of this scene?
- How does this scene lead into or set up subsequent scenes?
In film, each scene is broken down into a number of shots. The director ‘frames’ the shot to contain the information for one little part of the scene, (sentences if you like) and each shot must flow easily into the next, carrying the story smoothly along.
The edges of the frame, which is a choice the director makes with their cinematographer, is where the tension is; the world doesn’t exist until it enters the frame and what’s in and what’s not in the frame creates a momentary world where we focus only on what the director wants us to see.
How this shot links to the next shot in the same scene is important; will it jar or will it be so seamless that the viewer hasn’t noticed a change of shot? And how the scenes link together to unfold the story, the transitions, also keep us watching and wondering…
This is the editor’s job, but s/he can only cut what has been filmed. Filming to edit is a key skill for a filmmaker and it is no coincidence that one of the greatest directors of his time, Alfred Hitchcock, was an editor before he was a director.
- The angle of the shot is also crucial; it can create unease or a sense of calm
- And the size of the shot also matters: are we surveying the whole scene in a wide angle, or are we close up and personal, focussing only on one object or character?
- How many people are there in this shot and if so, do they carry equal significance?
- Where is the focus, and do we pull focus to shift the emphasis?
The director is playing with us and using the camera to direct our attention, just as a writer does by revealing only those details which they want you to know at this point in the narrative. How the director interprets a screenplay and builds it scene by scene is crucial to the viewers experience of the story.
And how the writer of a novel constructs each scene, sentence by sentence, unfolding the story and making the reader want to read more, is a skill we can all learn by watching more films.