Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Secrets of the Silver Screen, 2

In my last blog post about screenplays, I highlighted the novelist's golden rule: show but don’t tell. Well, guess what? Screenwriters break this rule all the time themselves. They can get away with writing, for example, “character is suddenly passionate” and “he’s really mad.” What the heck? Doesn’t this fly in the face of what I said about screenwriters showing through dialogue? Nope; it works with it. And I’m going to tell you why…

It works with it, because the screenwriter is counting on actors and directors—sometimes even scenery, lighting and camera angles—to show for them. (This is how actors earn their dimes, by the way.) Granted, how Al Pacino shows anger may be very different from how Jennifer Aniston shows anger, but there’s no doubt they can both show it—and effectively. Punching a hole in the wall or smearing mayonnaise on your best friend’s new silk blouse; breaking someone’s pinkie or snapping a pencil…you get the picture. An inventive actor or director will treat an open "telling" line like an empty canvas and color it up with as much or as little detail as they please.

Take Peter Jackson’s epic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, for example. According to Jackson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the biggest effect sequence in the movie evolved from a single line in the play. This particular drama unfolded just before a demon-like monster called a balrog appeared to challenge the fellowship (protagonists). The script itself said something along the lines of, “The fellowship runs from the balrog, down a staircase and across a bridge,” but director Jackson expanded on the concept based on imagery of a crumbling bridge that one of his artists composed. Hmm, he mused, what would happen if there are more crumbling segments and the characters have to jump over gaps? What would happen if we add arrow fire to the scene? What would happen if the characters are separated from one another, with some of them stranded on a teetering stair section? Of course the answer is that in choosing to do those things, Jackson dramatically increases tension in the scene—so naturally he opted to do it. Point is, this lengthy, chair-gripping sequence was born from a single TELLING line about running down a staircase. (The script, by the way, remained the same, even after Jackson amped up the drama.)

How can we as novelists use this tidbit to help us? We obviously can’t toss undeveloped conflict lines like “runs into trouble on a staircase” into our manuscripts and hope agents, editors and readers imagine exciting sequences to fill in the blanks. But though our polished manuscripts should do little telling, there are times when we can and maybe should rely heavily on telling lines: when we’re writing a draft.

Telling lines can be wonderful place holders, capturing your intent but allowing you to press on when you can’t envision anything more interesting than, for example, “he got mad.” You can also use telling lines to note where a character needs to go into deep-think mode (e.g. hero thinks about his crappy childhood for a while), then you can leave the line behind, press forward and write action. Bonus: your pacing improves. Later, in the editing process, identify those “tellers” and make them show or otherwise reveal what they should—the angry teenager now dumps a bowl of Jell-o on her sister’s newly washed hair; the unsettled divorcee tries to read a book but can’t get beyond the first paragraph, so she throws it across the room and then looks darkly at a set of steak knives; the hero thinks about his crappy childhood.

The screenwriters have a trick: Write some telling lines, then leave it to the next stage of production to fill in the color. Novelists have a tough job, because every stage of production is in our hands. We are the screenwriter, the actor, director and producer rolled into one red-carpet worthy package--and we can avoid the interview with Joan Rivers.


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