Monday, 24 June 2019

Writing Inspired by Films

You might be wondering why there’s an article about films on an author’s blog, so I’m going to tell you:  because to me, films are “visual books” and they have inspired the way I write my books.   The written word is only one way to tell a story, as you can see from my previous blog post entitled “The Wonderful Art of Storytelling.”

The tried and tested story format of the movie and television series is the same as the general formula for a written story, be it a short story, novella, novel or series.  For example, the beginning of the story sets the scene and introduces one or more characters who will face some kind of challenge or problem.  The ensuing parts of the story show how the problem is overcome or solved, and the final part of the story summarizes the end result or emphasizes a point.  In the case of a series, the ending can be in the form of a “cliff-hanger” – a new problem which will be overcome in the following sequel.

Image by Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
Other parts of the visual story that correspond with parts of a written book are the close-up, pace and creating suspense.  The close-up in films to show a person’s reaction or point the viewer to an important piece of the story corresponds to extra detail and emphasis in the written book. 

The pace of a story is important, as it allows the reader or viewer to absorb and become immersed in the mood, event or emotional atmosphere.  Changing scenes and skipping to another scene at the right time are also important aspects of pacing the reader or viewer.  Pace is most important when creating suspense, such as quickly jumping from one image or setting to another.   The pace of a film corresponds to the length of narration, description, chapters, breaks and changing scenes in a written book.

An understanding of these vital parts of the story has helped me in my writing, and it was a special interest in silent and classical films which established this foundation and enhanced my appreciation for the art of storytelling, whether by a visual medium or the written word. 

Silent films clearly show the transition from written books and stage plays to the moving picture format in the use of ‘intertitles’ or ‘title cards’ to provide narration and necessary dialogue.  They also show the quick development of adapting to the new film medium as the story went from rigid sets like a theatrical play to moving the camera outdoors to film movement and action, and then to moving the camera, such as panning across a room or landscape.  D.W. Griffith, known as ‘the father of film’ developed the pace and suspense, as well as the quick succession of images from one set or close-up to another.

While Griffith and other pioneers founded the film industries in America, German directors built on the innovations of the 1910s and created Expressionism in the 1920s.  This famous style of silent film in turn inspired the great Hollywood genre, Film Noir in the 30s and 40s.  German Expressionism inspired me greatly with its clever use of light and shadow to create atmosphere, suspense and above all, to express emotion and mood.  The viewer was swept away by these visual elements, and often it is the emotional impact of a story that remains with the viewer or reader long after the details and individual words or images are forgotten.

Image by Etienne Marais, Pixabay

This led me to consider the emotional impact in my own writing, and how I could express various things in an indirect way, like silent films used light and shadow in the visual medium.  In many guides or instructions for effective writing, it is advised to “show” rather than “tell” the reader what is happening or what a character is thinking and feeling.  This produces a similar effect to the visual use of light and shadow by letting the reader or viewer begin to feel and think about the story on a deeper level.

Perhaps you’re now wondering about other types of books which don’t conform to this general formula, such as many literary works.  Silent Film has represented this form as well, namely in Soviet Avant Garde:  a style of cinematography pioneered by Russian directors and film-makers in the silent era (up to 1929) using collages and montages to express a concept, mood or event.  There are usually no intertitles or dialogue, nor main characters; only a carefully-arranged sequence of short scenes, yet put together, they pack a powerful emotional punch.

You’ve heard the saying, “A Picture paints a thousand words”, and here is an example:  The latter half of the excellent 1947 classic film, “The Ghost and Mrs Muir” jumps several decades in the life of the main character, and it is depicted in just a few short, poignant scenes.  When Mrs Muir is a young woman with  a 10-year-old daughter, a sailor carves the girl’s name into a thick wooden post on the edge of the shore.  As years, and then decades pass,  the viewer sees several scenes of the changing tides at the beach and then the post with the engraved name:  each time more eroded and worn by the elements.  Such a simple yet powerful means to convey the passing of time that cannot be expressed in words!

In fact, visual and written stories complement each other:  some aspects of a story are better said in words, others better in images.  But you’ve probably heard people complain about movies never being as good as the books they were based on.  Is this a fair assessment?  For a start, a book without images allows the reader to form his or her own mental images of people and places described in the book.  Each person perceives a book according to their individual personality and understanding of the world, so that it is impossible to represent that book visually according to everyone’s personal idea.  When a book is transcribed to film, it is necessary to adjust and adapt the dialogue and narration to fit the expected movie format.  Finally, the end result is also filtered by the personal perceptions and preferences of the screenwriter and the director.   Rather than comparing apples to oranges, it is often better to view the movie version of a book as a separate and individual rendition of the same story.  After all, one story can be told in many different ways, and in more than just one medium!

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