(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)
Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras. Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.
Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.
Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.
While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.
To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.
This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.
To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.
- Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
- Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
- Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
- Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
- Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
- Write the scene.
Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.
Inventory of non-character things
This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.
Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.
No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.
List the characters
Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.
It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.
Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.
If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.
List the actions
Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.
I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”
For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.
I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.
What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.
The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.
Stakes, goals, and things risked
For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.
I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.
So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.
What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.
Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.
Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.
Write the Scene
Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.
The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence.
“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”
Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched.
Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on.
And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please.
There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.
It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.
There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.
Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.