East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Did this guy ever see a movie?

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I’ll ramble a bit, if you don’t mind. This post is somewhat connected to the Things I learned from the Movies post a few days back.
Sort of like a reboot.

Last night we were reading a passage from a novel, me and some friends.
It’s a good exercise, reading aloud, and see what it sounds like. It helps a lot.
Robert E Howard used to speak aloud the passages he was typing, or so they say – and it’s a good practice… well, ok maybe not bellowing out loud each and every phrase, but reading some passages aloud helps.
roastAnyway, the thing we were reading was incredibly bad. But really bad.
This was just some people sitting around a table, having lunch (roast with potatoes, that sort of stuff), and it was supposed to be a quiet naturalistic scene, with some sort of emotional charge underneath.
It was ghastly.
The prose was stilted, the dialogue was made of wood, the whole set up lacked life, rhythm, humor, that spark that brings the scene to your mind’s eye.
It was horrid, and it failed on every point. A disaster.
We laughed a lot, we cringed a lot.
But mostly laughed.


And so it happened that me and my friend Lucy just ended up saying the same thing:

But did this guy ever see a movie in his life?

Which led to an interesting discussion, and it was fun because Lucy is a writer and a movie montage and editing expert1, and I’ll try and summarize it here, for your entertainment.

The basic question was, is it possible for a writer in the 20th and 21dt century to write without thinking in terms of movie scenes?
Cinema and television are such a part of our everyday life, that I guess it becomes pretty difficult to work out a plot, and write a story, without breaking it up in chunks that are, essentially, shots.
After all, that’s how software like Scrivener work: you define a book, divide it in parts, divide parts in chapters, divide chapters in scenes, then write the scenes.

I like movies – as witnessed by the frequent posts I do about old films and TV series – and I do play my stories out in my head like they were being projected on a big screen.
I can start a chapter with an establishing shot, panning across a vista, and then get closer to the characters, doing what’s called “piano americano” in Italian… an “American shot”, the characters taken close enough to see their faces but distant enough for us to see their hands, catch their actions, get the background.


And then I close up for the dialogues.
I remember a passage in Samuel Delany’s Jewel Hinged Jaw in which he describes the writing process as a series of steps, getting closer to the object we are describing, getting more detail. It’s there I first got this technique described – but I met it often, both in the movies and in a lot of stories I was reading, so it stuck into my mind.
That’s the way I think when I write.

I must say this way of doing it is not planned. It’s not that I’m sitting at the keyboard and think

Now we dolly back, now we fade to black

… Like Steely Dan used to sing.
It just happens.
And it can lead to problems with my editors – because a quick series of cuts, say during a dialogue, as characters banter, might result in a series of quick, very close POV changes – and that’s a bad thing, they tell me.
On the other hand, I learned about dialogue watching old screwball comedies, so sue me.


Sometimes I do try something more studied and planned – like trying to describe a scene imitating some very camera movement.
Like, say, three characters sitting around a table in a restaurant, and the camera pans and turns around them, and we catch their faces, and also what’s going on around them – the waiters at the tables, the other customers, the food (the clicking of the flatware and the glasses, the low voices, the snippets of dialogue from other tables, the smell of food…)
It’s quite interesting, and it works – but sometimes (it happened today) you end up with a beautiful scene that’s simply too long and wasteful in the economy of thestory. You write it, you love it, you throw it away.
It happens.

In the end, I guess, it all comes down to trying to make the text effective, clear and economic. Movie references work great – but basically you are working with words, not images. It can be done, but it can be tricky. It’s not the same thing, but some elements can be transported from one medium to the other.
Also learning what can be translated from movie to the page and what cannot is an important lesson, I guess.


So, did the guy that wrote the scene we were reading ever see a movie?
I think it would be impossible for him not to – but who knows, maybe the connection did not click.
Or maybe he’s just a bad writer, or what we read is one that got away, and he’s perfectly fine most of the time. I don’t know.

Granted, there’s  a school of thought that considers bad anything similar to what we see on a screen, when we find it on the page.

A dialogue worthy of an American TV serial

I remember this phrase used as the ultimate damnation by a critic.
Well, I’d pay good money to be able to put on the page a dialogue worthy of, say, The Rockford Files or Homicide, Life on the Streets.


I’m pretty sure there are different ways to build a scene, or write a dialogue – after all, scenes and dialogues were in novels and plays well before there were movies, but I still think watching a movie and trying to learn something might help in avoiding our stories being read aloud in the night by people snickering.

  1. it would have been great had Claire been there too, because she’s a playwright, so I guess she has a completely different approach to the whole thing. Now that would make for a great panel, say at a literary festival: a film editor, a playwright and a hack, talking about “scenes”. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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