Tuesday, December 03, 2013

How to Make a Story More Visual

Screenwriters resort to a variety of tricks to make stories more visual. I'm convinced novelists should be taking advantage of some of the same tricks, because adding visuality to a story almost always improves it, whether we're talking about a novel, a short story, a screenplay, an epic poem, or what have you.

Suppose you've been tasked with writing a scene in which a reluctant hero has to seek the counsel of a seer or swami or guru. He wants the guru to tell him whether he's ready to accept the hero's challenge.

The reluctant hero has to go visit the guru at the guru's ashram. Except, the ashram is really an inner-city apartment. The question isn't what you will have the two characters say to each other. The question is what they'll do during the scene. Will they sit on the floor crosslegged and talk? (How boring would that be?) Will one sit before a chessboard, rearranging chess pieces while the other stands and chews gum? Will they sit together and stare at a Tarot deck, a ouija board, a crystal ball?

In The Matrix, the guru (the Oracle) isn't a robed, bearded sage (Obi-Wan) but a laid-back, middle-aged black woman baking cookies! That's your first clue: Use the unexpected. Make things have a different appearance than the reader (or viewer) might have been expecting. Sometimes you need to signal (visually) a person's role through costume or stature, directly and obviously (as with Darth Vader), but sometimes it's more effective to do the reverse: dress the powerful in rags, bedeck the unimportant in bejeweled regalia.

Gandhi meets the Queen of England. Who is well dressed? Who has more power over India? Ho Chi Minh meets General Westmoreland. Who's wearing peasant attire? Who's winning the war?

In The Matrix, the Oracle bakes cookies, smokes cigarettes, reads Neo's palm. Neo mostly stands around and does nothing, although, significantly, he breaks a vase early in the scene. He also notices a sign over the doorway ("Know Thyself"). You might ask yourself why the scene was written to take advantage of chocolate chip cookies, cigarettes, palm-reading, a broken vase, and a sign over a doorway in a kitchen. Are these all "just props," or do they contain messages, meanings, special connotations? Ask yourself how you would have written the scene.

It's interesting that in a later Matrix movie, there's a similar scene, in which Neo gets to visit The Architect. It's one of the most laughably ineffective scenes in movie history. Why? The Architect just sits dispassionately in a chair and goes off on a bizarrely abstruse, esoteric soliloquy about the meaning and origin of The Matrix, while Neo looks at TV images of himself. This is an example of a "dialog" scene done poorly, done non-visually. The only "visual" is the wall of TV monitors, which instantly comes across as as sterile and gimmicky. The Architect's speech is totally forgettable. It's memorable for its ludricrousness. In this scene, instead of a picture painting a thousand words, we have a guy in a chair speaking a thousand words, saying nothing.

The scene in which The Architect drones on, semi-coherently, about the design of The Matrix is
arguably one of the most laughable non-comedy scenes in major motion picture history.

In making a scene work visually, you have a number of tools at your disposal, including setting, costumes, props, situations/actions, and the choice of words you (and your characters) use to convey the scene. Try not to think of these items as disjoint Cartesian bits. (To keep you from thinking of them in that way, I'm going to resist the temptation to break them out into bullet points for separate discussion.) Think in terms of the whole. Think "performance art."

Think "performance art" even if you're writing scenes for a novel.

When one character has to give another character bad news (or any significant piece of information), try doing it symbolically, with a visual. Is your character going to leave the country, only she hasn't told her partner yet? Maybe leave a passport on a desktop or dresser. The klutzy thing to do is have Mary tell Bob directly: "I'm going on a trip." How much better is it to have Bob spot the passport on his own and ask: "What's this?" Klutzy followup: Mary says "I'm going away. This is not working." Better: Mary says "Do we have any sunblock?" (Avoid the straight-on discussion.) Better still: "Can you hand me that plastic bag?" In the plastic bag, clearly visible, is a tube of sunblock. (Props, action, implication, possible symbolism. The sunblock implies Mary is heading for sunnier weather, both literally and metaphorically.)

Is someone getting fired at work? The obvious (and not terribly engaging) way to do it is to have the boss buzz the worker on the phone and say "Can you come in for a minute?" Then there's the office scene where the boss gives the you're-being-laid-off speech.

A far better way to handle it is: Mary comes in to her office and finds the desktop clean, sticky-notes gone, her items in a cardboard box. Someone pokes a head around a corner and says; "The boss wants to see you." Cut to: Joe the Boss, sitting at his desk alone in his quiet office, door closed. Maybe he's just getting off the phone with someone. With zero warning, an office chair comes crashing through the plate glass. Mary, eyes blazing, steps over the rubble. "You wanted to see me?"

Gesticulation is often better than a line of dialog. There's a wonderful scene in The Adjustment Bureau (see my analysis here), where Matt Damon's character (a young politician) flirts with his soon-to-be serious romantic partner (played by Emily Blunt) on a commuter bus. The two had met by chance (and snuck a quick kiss in a men's room) a few days before, never suspecting they'd ever meet up again; but now they've met randomly on a bus. The bus has stopped, she gets off, the bus's door is about to close, and Damon knows he has maybe 3 seconds to say whatever it is he's going to say. As the door starts to close, he blurts out, to the woman he hardly knows: "The morning after I lost the election I woke up thinking about you." She smiles sadly and gives him the finger.

Why is that an effective moment? She doesn't know yet if she should have feelings for the guy (even though they had a quick stolen-kiss moment); she doesn't know if he's telling the truth; and if he is, he's screwing up a sweet and precious, spontaneous, largely non-verbal moment by saying something that implies true love, before they've figured out if they even like each other. He's wrecking a beautiful thing by bringing up love! She should be happy, right? No. She's been there before. She knows you can mess up the most precious part of a budding relationship with heavy "true love" bullshit. She's giving the finger not just to the Matt Damon character but to all the stupid, heavyhanded, bullshit-drama crap that messes up so many delicate, wonderful things in this life.

Emily Blunt's single-finger salute said so many things (so many) that would've utterly failed, in straight dialog.

There's the famous T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park where, before we actually see the T-Rex, before the kids-trapped-in-the-car get to stare up at the beast in Lilliputian awe, we learn how big the creature is from a glass of water. We see concentric waves start to appear in the top of the water, in rhythm to the pounding of the creature's feet (still some distance away, off-camera). In this simple manner, we're told visually how incredibly massive the creature is, long before we actually see it.
The Log Lady.

If you have a crazy-old-lady character, you can show that's she crazy by having her say crazy things, but that's the easy way out. David Lynch did it with a log. Who can forget the Log Lady?

If you need to, just put physical obstacles in a character's way. Instead of your character walking across the room to get to another character, put a chair in between the two, and make him throw the chair out of the way so he can get to the other character.

And by the way, you're not still using plain-Jane verbs like "walk" or "look," are you? Your characters should be striding, tiptoeing, trotting, glancing, staring, glaring, etc., shouldn't they? Choice of vocabulary makes a difference. Some words conjure images and activity; some are lifeless.

One final comment. Every movie has what are called "trailer moments." What are your novel's trailer moments? Every novel should have some. Don't you think?

Figure out what your story's "trailer moments" are. And: See if you can't make some of them play well even with the sound off. If you can work irony and symbolism into the mix, too, so much the better.


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