Sunday, December 01, 2013

Visuality: How to Make Fiction More Visual

I'm firmly convinced that a solid understanding of the craft of screenwriting can only improve your fiction-writing skills. Many of the skills of good screenwriting, if transferred to novel or short story writing, make for a much-higher-impact story. I'm talking not only about story structure and dialog-related tricks, but verticality and "visuality"—making a story more vivid by making it more visual.

Visuality is something good screnwriters spend a lot of time trying to achieve. Mediocre scripts, and even some "good" scripts (of the "I like it but don't love it" variety), are often mediocre simply because they lack visual impact, relying too much on explicative dialog to move the story along. When you read one of these scripts, you get the feeling you're reading a stage play.

But even stage plays (good ones, that is) rely heavily on visuals, rather than just dialog.

Kenny Hodges in 1977.
Many years ago when I was working for The Mother Earth News, I came to be good friends with somebody at work named Kenny Hodges. Kenny was a great raconteur (I can't begin to replicate his skill here), and one of the many amazing stories he told was the story of the time he auditioned for, and landed, a part in a Broadway play.

The way he tells it, Kenny and some friends decided, on a lark, to get in line for an open reading for a play. Kenny had never done any acting. He had been a musician (the bassist in the 1960s group Spanky and Our Gang). Many people were reading for the part. The role was that of a small-town hoodlum of some kind; the reading involved dialog between the hoodlum and the county sheriff.

The dialog was fairly humdrum, the hoodlum saying to the Sheriff something like "Oh yeah? Well, you may think you're the big shot here, but you ain't got nothing, hear me? I'm the one in charge of this town. Not you."

People read for the part, one by one, and got told "Thank you" by the director (meaning: you're dismissed, have a nice day now).

I couldn't wait for Kenny to reveal the secret of how he got the part, so I interrupted him while he was telling the story and just asked him. He explained that when he got on stage to read the lines, he improvised. At the critical moment, he held out a fist, thumb pointing straight up, and said (completely off book): "See that?"

The actor playing the Sheriff stepped a little closer, looked at Kenny's thumb, and said something like "What? What's that?" Whereupon Kenny flexed his thumb and pointed to the crotch of the thumb, under the first joint, and said: "That's where you are. Right there. Right there, my friend." In essence saying "I've got you under my thumb, asshole."

It got him the part. The director had the thumb gesture written into the script. (Unfortunately, due to a musical engagement, Kenny—who never seriously thought he would get the part in the play—had to decline the role, and never got to act on Broadway.)

This is an example of the power of visuality—and the kind of thing you should be having characters do, if you're writing a script or a novel.

I'm going to continue on this theme in tomorrow's post, because there's a lot more to say about visuality and how to use it to enrich fiction.