Because I have been in that bliss period between handing in a new book and getting editorial notes, I’ve actually been able to read, and have been picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, I discard most books within ten pages, if that. Sometimes I give it 50 pages. Sometimes I make it halfway through and lose all interest. So that’s pretty much been the process over the last two weeks. Have only made it through two whole books so far.
Yesterday I picked up a book that had me riveted from the very beginning – and it made me realize something actually pretty obvious about myself.
I am a visual whore.
Yes, and proud of it. Oh, sure, I could pretend to be all highbrow and quote Aristotle on “Spectacle” in The Poetics, but really, why sugarcoat it? Give me eye candy. Dazzle me with images. But make them mean something. Your story better give me your themes visually or you risk losing me, and fast. I want symbols, symbols, damn it!
And no, I haven’t segued into talking about movies, now. I’m talking about books.
I have to say, one thing all that screenwriting has been really good for is helping me develop a strong visual writing style. I love it when readers tell me – “I can see every scene you write.” But actually, visual storytelling is a lot more than just putting a movie into your readers’ heads as they’re reading your book. Visual storytelling actually presents themes that elevate a story and make it resonate in a reader’s consciousness – and subconscious – long after they close the book.
My obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.
That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.
So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?
Let’s start with establishing shots and master shots, setpiece scenes, and visual image systems.
ESTABLISHING SHOTS AND MASTER SHOTS
One thing I’ve noticed about beginning writers’ writing is that they almost always fail to set up a chapter visually. Actually a lot of published authors have this problem, too. I find this extremely annoying and frustrating. After all, human beings process the world visually before any other sense, so why wouldn’t we as authors want to instantly establish where we are and what we’re looking at and how that makes us feel right up front, in every chapter? If you don’t, your reader is going to be uncomfortable and disoriented until you finally give her some idea of where she is.
That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of establishing shots and master shots.
An establishing shot, in film – you guessed it – establishes the location. A shot of the Eiffel Tower lets us know we’re in Paris, a shot of the Sphinx tells us we’re in Egypt. An exterior shot of an office tower followed by people working inside an office lets us know we’re inside that building.
A master shot is an angle on a scene that shows all of the players of the scene in the specific location – like looking at a stage and seeing the entire set and all the actors on it. You get all the information about the scene in one shot.
But an establishing shot is more than just information about WHERE the action takes place. It can, and should, convey emotion, suspense, theme – any number of things about the action about to transpire or the character walking into the scene.
Every time I start a chapter or a scene, I think first about the establishing shot and the master shot. I look at the upcoming action from a long enough angle to see everything there is to see about the scene. Where am I and what am I looking at? I might not describe it outright for a paragraph or two but if I don’t, there’s a damn good reason that I didn’t start with it, and I don’t keep the reader waiting long to give them the visual. And when I do give the visual, I think about what it says thematically and emotionally about the scene. Is it a confined space because my heroine feels trapped? Then I make sure to convey that claustrophobic sense. Are the colors of everything muted and leached because of my hero’s depression? Is every tree on the street bursting with bloom and fragrance because my lovers have finally reunited? (Yeah, I’m being on the nose, but my feeling is – be over the top at first to make sure the emotion is there… you can always tone it down later.)
This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.
There are multiple definitions of a setpiece – it can be a huge action scene like – well, anything in THE DARK KNIGHT – that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in a – well, a shower, for instance, in PSYCHO.
If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.
That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The goofy galactic bar in STAR WARS. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The dungeon – I mean prison – in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In fact you can look at RAIDERS and SILENCE and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in RAIDERS…)
Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces because one is so big and action-oriented (RAIDERS) and one is so small, confined and psychological (SILENCE), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.
A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell – Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey – just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.
Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Tally and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more – the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.
But this post is already long, so I think I’ll save my discussion on visual image systems for another even longer post, so we can focus on setpieces today.
What are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic?
Oh, and the book I picked up yesterday that inspired this post?
Barbara Vine’s THE MINOTAUR… wonderfully creepy and psychologically perverse – you have a schizophrenic (maybe) brother, four strange sisters, an even stranger mother, and a young au pair on an isolated English estate – and in the middle of this house is a mysterious library built as a labyrinth.
You better believe I’m hooked.