The Movie in Your Mind

By David Corbett

I spent last weekend attending the 2012 Noircon, the biannual lovefest to all things noir devised and convened by Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan in Philadelphia. 

I love this festival, which is far more intimate and writer-centric than most others I’ve attended. The participants largely form a congress of equals, and there is never a great divide between the contributions of the various panelists and the comments from the floor. It’s a smart group, widely read and not shy, and I always come away learning more that I could have imagined.

This year was particularly exceptional, with what at times seemed to be a continuous string of highlights. That said, one presentation stood out for me—the keynote talk by Robert Olen Butler.

Butler’s a gracious, witty, generous man with a knife-like body and a steel-trap mind. An astonishing talent, he’s written thirteen novels, six story collections, nine screenplays, an essential guide to writing (From Where You Dream—trust me, read it), and has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship in addition to an almost unseemly bundle of other awards and distinctions.

Why, I hear you ask, is such a literary hotshot slumming at Noircon?

Well that’s an interesting question, one ironically answered by Otto Penzler the day before Butler spoke. Otto explained how, after studying English and American Literature at the University of Michigan, he discovered crime fiction and promptly realized that its best practitioners owe apologies to no one.

Butler agrees, not just in theory. His most recent novel, The Hot Country, is a historical thriller set in Mexico in 1914, combining intrigue from both that country’s revolution and the worldwide cataclysm routinely known as World War I. The plan is for nine more novels in the series, all to be published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

But what Butler chose to discuss at Noircon was craft—specifically, the way in which fiction mimics the cinematic portrayal of events in the mind. (His remarks, I now know, were a distillation of his chapter, “Cinema of the Mind,” within From Where You Dream.)

The American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, Butler informed us, once remarked that he owed everything he knew about cinematic technique to Charles Dickens—who died years before the advent of film.

By way of example, Butler turned to the following passage from Great Expectations, which appears shortly after the narrator, Pip, sets the stage, identifying himself and his family, then continues:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

Butler called our attention to several techniques here, all of which have cinematic elements, and there are two particular points that stuck with me, involving the first and the third paragraphs.

Butler noted that the first paragraph serves as what in film is routinely called the establishment shot—setting the story in its initial setting. We start at a distance in a long shot then move in to the nettles of the churchyard and the headstones in arresting close-up, then look out across the landscape again, as though to put those deaths in perspective.

That perspective is not local. Dickens moves beyond the “low leaden line” of the river to : “the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing … the sea.” A great many writers might leave that phrase out. Such an omission, he argued, would be a mistake, for the establishment shot doesn’t just lay out the scenery. This crucial phrase broadens not just the physical landscape but the thematic one, extending our view not just to the immediate environs but to the world at large, setting the stage for so much of the story to come, and hinting at its universality.

And then, with incredible boldness, Dickens snaps us back again to “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry,” the narrator himself, Pip. This movement in and out creates a marvelous sense of the larger savage world and the small scared soul that form the essential focus of the tale, and do it subtly with this implicit, cinematic movement in and out of the action.

Similarly, the third paragraph might readily find itself in many a writer’s Dead Darling file—another error. It’s not just the unnerving description of Magwitch we’d lose. Note the suspense that builds by separating “I’ll cut your throat” from “‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror.” Note also how that tension is created and how it builds. There are no independent verbs in the main clauses of any of the sentences, for the desired effect is one of attenuation—Pip staring in terror at the man emerging before him—and verbs in grammatical structure are the device for conveying movement in time. Omit them, and you’re standing stock still.

The next example was one with which more of the crowd was familiar, the first few paragraphs from the second chapter Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

A telephone-bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:

“Hello?…Yes, speaking…Dead?…Yes…Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the phone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco.

Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sitting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into the curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth.

He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money in his pockets.

As with the Dickens example, the main focus again resided on the creation of a series of mental images that form a vivid film-like sequence, visually clear in our minds, even including camera angles—the ceiling light shot from below, followed by the close up of the rolling of the cigarette, both mimicking Spade’s own focus.

But there’s more than that, too. Once again, suspense gets created through the use of detail an impatient writer might discard—or never visualize to begin with. Spade rolls himself a smoke right after learning his partner, Miles Archer, has been killed. We don’t know as yet for sure that the two o’clock phone call concerned Archer, and it’s not until later we’ll learn Spade was sleeping with Archer’s wife. Instead we get this enigmatic, slow-motion rolling of a cigarette. Its intrusion into the scene piques our interest, precisely because it doesn’t quite fit. It suggests without stating outright that Spade has something serious on his mind, and yet in the casualness of the activity we also sense no great alarm. There’s even a hint of relief.

Note: Interestingly, the day before, Lawrence Block had remarked that Hammett, sensing that his literary success might well depend on his novels being made into films, deliberately limited his descriptions to only what could be seen and heard. This wasn’t, as many have believed, a nod to Hemingwayesque technique. It was a professional calculation.

In the Q&A that followed his talk, Butler noted that as a teacher in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, he encounters some of the best aspirants to literary fame to emerge from the various MFA programs across the country. And all too often, “They know the second through tenth most important things about writing, but they don’t know the first.” The first, he explained, was that stories are about yearning.

He suggested that genre writers often understand this point well—if they sometimes have an insufficient grasp of the next nine most important things about their craft—because genre often has the yearning built into the premise of the form. Crime fiction is driven by the search for justice, romance novels by the craving for love, science fiction by the need to humanize technology, etc.

His talk burned a nasty little hole in my brain, and as soon as I could I got my hands on a copy of From Where You Dream and I’ve been devouring it ever since.

So, Murderateros — how does the cinema of the mind guide you in your writing? Do you take time to envision camera angles? Do you consider tempo in your descriptions? Do you play with quick alteration betweeen and long shots and close ups to create a dramatic effect between thematic or narrative extremes?

* * * * *

There were a great many other excellent presentations at Noircon, including but not limited to:

            —Well-deserved awards bestowed on Lawrence Block and Otto Penzler, with interviews of both men, giving Block a chance to, among other things, recount his days as a writer of lesbian romance novels, and Otto an opportunity to discuss how obscenely cheap real estate was when he bought his first store in Manhattan.

            —A panel on music with SJ Rozan and John Wesley Harding (who writes crime fiction under the pen name Wesley Stace), complete with songs.

            —A wickedly lurid, funny, and confessional true crime panel with Megan Abbott, Allison Gaylin, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya.

            —A blackly comic panel of cautionary tales from Hollywood featuring Lawrence Block, Duane Swierczynski, Anthony Bruno, and Ed Pettit.

            —And last but not least, a panel on burlesque and noir, with Lulu Lollipop, Frank De Blasé, Timaree Schmit, and Susana Mayer.

As I said, I had a gas, and I fully intend to return in two years. Even without Lulu Lollipop.

* * * * *

Blatant Self-Promotion Segment: For all the month of November, Open Road Media/Mysterious Press is featuring 100 titles for less than $3.99, including The Devil’s Redhead at a nifty $2.99.

If you haven’t yet read it, pick it up. If you have, share it with a friend. (Or an enemy. I can live with that.)

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In tribute to John Wesley Harding, who so graciously regaled us with song, here’s “Ordinary Weekend,” which he wrote after reading Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. (In his performance for us, he remarked somewhat sheepishly he should have practiced, and ended up forgetting several verses, only to offer some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: He said years of performance had made him utterly un-selfconscious about fucking up. Not that anyone cared. We were enthralled):


16 thoughts on “The Movie in Your Mind

  1. Erik Arneson

    David: I completely agree that Butler's keynote address was fantastic, as is your summary here. He made some points that really hit home. Using Great Expectations as an example of cinematic style in novels was unexpected and brilliant.

    Also, it was great to meet you in person! Thanks again for the great LitReactor class.

  2. Sarah W

    It's odd to think that we didn't always disdain long set-ups, loathe adverbs, and vilify head-hopping and that someday the conventions will change again.

    Do readers really care that much? Or is it just those in the business? Whims of slow-moving fashion?

    I remember Hammett's cigarette scene whenever any other character I've read since rolls his or her own. I also remember, and love, Effie Perine, who would have been cut completely by an editor on a panel I attended a while back, because she was "unnecessary to the plot." Feh.

    Lawrence Block visited our library a few years back–he's an amazing speaker and a fount of practical knowledge. I recommend his TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT.

    (someday, I hope, like Mr. Harding, to be unselfconscious about fucking up–enthralling people while I do so would be a nice bonus)

  3. JD Rhoades

    I've often said that the reason I write is so I can tell people that the movies I see playing inside my skull are part of the creative process and not psychosis.

    And I'll second the recommendation for the Block book. One of the few books on writing that doesn't bore me to tears.

  4. David Corbett


    You bring up a few really interesting points. First, head-hopping is a frequent sin of the omniscient narrator, which has indeed fallen very much out of fashion, and some of the cinematic techniques employed by Dickens would seem to require that omniscience — but then you realize you're in first person.

    Don Winslow's most recent books employ an omniscient narrator quite deftly, and in a recent talk he wisecracked, "I'd change point of view in the middle of a syllable if I could."

    We do seem to live in an ADD world, and I think publishing is always chasing after the fleeting awareness of any and all potential readers. Much of this has far more to do with marketing than the true requirements of the work.

    As for Effie Perrine being inessential to the plot — yes, Spade could be like Marlowe, handling his own office work, but this obsession with plot at the mercy of all else reduces all characters to plot puppets. Readers don't remember plot, they remember character, as your own memory points out. You can't dally in character sketches but without the unexpected you can't reach the human.

    I agree on both Block's merits as a speaker and as a practical guidance counselor for other writers. TELLING LIES is an essential book, imho.

    Yeah, I'd like to be utterly un-selfconscious as well. Maybe next time around. In the meantime, I admire those who can pull it off, and JWH certainly did.

  5. Richard Maguire

    Wonderful, David. I always learn so much from your posts.

    One thing about Dickens puzzles me. He longed to write for the stage, yet the few plays he produced weren't up to much. Whereas in prose he was able to create wonderful, visual scenes. Curious. I wonder if he would have had the same problem writing screenplays. Or would that have been his ideal medium?

    I'm really looking forward to reading "The Devil's Redhead".

  6. David Corbett


    Nice to see you here, sir. Yeah, one of the compliments I cherish most is when people say my books seem so visual. I know I'm doing something right when I hear that. And yet Butler made me aware I could be doing more with that.

    Also, as noted, agreed on the Block book. He once quipped that his second writing guide, SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB, didn't sell nearly as well, from which he deduced that readers prefer lies to spiders.

  7. David Corbett


    Why thank you. In this instance, I have to defer all pedagogical value to Mr. Butler, though. I'm devouring him right now and learning scads, both from his writing guide and his prose.

    I think Dickens's power resides in his voice, and in either play or film form he'd be handcuffed. I would truly love to have the time and go back and re-read him. I know, yes, he wrote for word count on the basis of his pay scale but so did everyone else and they haven't stood up to time.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I've always wanted to go to NoirCon. Maybe when Penzler is — not there.

    Love this post! You know I'm all about the film techniques on the page. Shakespeare wrote completely cinematically, too; even his stage directions are master shots, establishing shots, closeups. But cinema came out of theater, so that shouldn't be any surprise.

  9. Kristopher

    Wow, that music panel sounds like it must have been great.

    And any panel with Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin on it (much less both together) is a MUST.

    Thanks for providing some highlights. I think I need to add this conference my yearly rounds

  10. David Corbett


    I think your comment about dreaming is really interesting. Shakespeare and stage directions, too. A novelist is required to juggle a lot of balls at once, and sometimes the need to be visually clear and interesting gets lost in the multi-tasking. But I think it still gets down to sight and sound — make the scene vivid in the mind's eye, make the music of the language resonate with the emotions in the scene, and you're close to all the way home.

  11. Erik Arneson

    Great post, David. Butler's talk was tremendous and this piece is a great supplement. His use of Dickens struck me as particularly interesting and helpful, since Great Expectations is not a novel that I would think of as having cinematic style. Also, it was great to meet you. Thanks again for the wonderful LitReactor class.

  12. David Corbett


    It was a real treat meeting you as well — I'm glad you spoke up! And congrats on your story's publication. I expect to be doing a lot more on the congratulation front with you in the future. (You're always welcome back to the class, btw, though you probably don't need it.)

  13. Allison Davis

    I just finished George Pelecanos' book, Nick's Trip, which was quite visual, especially the scenes in the bar where Nick works. Also, in parts of the book, he diverts attention to some piece of Washington DC's history or some nostalgia and I wondered about that backstory and then realized it enriched the reading. While it certainly wasn't vital to the story, it filled out the landscape and gave you more of a sense of where you were and I decided I liked that. As a reader, it was a take away, learning something about the place the story is unfolding. The visuals in a movie do that for you, too, giving you a visual tour. I agree it's important and effective. I struggle with this as a writer because I like to write dialog and have to go back in and add the visuals (if I'm just writing a first draft and streaming it's mostly dialog). Maybe I have some penchant for old radio shows…

  14. David Corbett


    Megan and Allyson were in particularly good form, as were Dennis and Wallace. And yeah, John Wesley Harding was a real presence, complemented with incredible wit and chram by SJ. Truly, a great weekend.


    I often right my dialog first as well, then fill in the scenery, context, etc. Not sure why, nor am I sure it's wise. Waldo Salt said he always focused on action and compelling images before he began to write his dialog. I think a lot about that — especially the actions part.

  15. James Harris


    This year's NoirCon sounds like it was a great time. Wish I'd been there.

    I've been giving Butler a re-read, largely because the cinema of my mind tends to flatten out when writing a scene, relying too much on close-ups, and then turning off, leaving disembodied voices on an empty stage.

    Butler's insights also have dovetailed nicely with the "Flaubert and Modern Narrative" section of James Wood's "How Fiction Works." I highly recommend Wood, if you've not already read him.

    Ditto on Lawrence Block's books. His conversational style belies a profound knowledge of the craft of fiction writing.

  16. David Corbett


    You're nt alone with the close-up problem. So many scenes, relying on dialog, tend to turn into talking heads, as though the setting melted away. (I speak from guilty experience.)

    I know the Wood book and have it, though I haven't read that chapter in a while. Time for a refresher, methinks.

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