Thursday, July 14, 2011

What writers can learn from film

Like lots of other people, we've been on a Harry Potter film (and book) marathon at our house in anticipation of the final film. You should be able to guess from this blog that I'm a Potter fan, and I've just been fascinated by all the tidbits out there on the making of the films. I don't want to write screenplays and I don't have particular dreams of a book of mine ever being adapted for film. (Uh, if someday that happens, I'm not against it! But I don't think I've written a book that must become a film to this point, and really, books are my one true love.) However. Watching and reading about this stuff really sets off creative sparks in my brain. So here are some semi-random thoughts about writing that I've had from learning about film:

1. On adaptations. It's easy to get tied up in one and only one version. But it's actually possible to rearrange events and combine characters and still bulls-eye the heart of the story. Doubtful? See The Prisoner of Azkaban, book and film.

2. Atmosphere can change everything! Ever see the B version of a film? I don't just mean the basic acting on a green screen, where the background will be filled in via computer later. I was amazed to learn that you could film a scene and then change things like color and lighting afterwards. Remember the scene in Deathly Hallows part 1 where they're running through the forest and the chasers are after them? It's all very light in the original take. It's only afterwards that they darkened it and made it ominous. In writing, I think this whole coloration thing is voice. You can have the same plot events take place, but tell a very different story depending on your word choice or voice. The nice thing is, you can keep the basic events and try out different voices and tones and then pick the most effective one.

3. Likewise, editing. I'm fascinated by the fact that a person can be the principal actor in a film, yet have no idea what it's going to look like in the end. That's due to editing. Editing in film is I think a lot more of a creative process than in writing, where the editor is more of a guide and the author carries the bulk of the creative responsibility. In writing, the author does most of that. In both cases, a number of scenes are created, but in the editing process, you get to pick which ones need to stay in the final version, and in which order. Depending on what you show your audience, you can still tell very different stories. There's a lovely scene in Half Blood Prince that was cut (parts of it appear in the final film, but abbreviated) that would have revealed more about Snape than perhaps would be wise at this point of the story. Other times, a scene might be informationally or even emotionally nice (the exchange between Harry and Dudley in DH1), but a competing scene gets even stronger emotion across that has a longer-term effect for the whole story (the opening sequence as it stands in the final, with Hermione erasing her parents' memories). Those are hard choices, deciding which of two strong scenes to keep in. But getting them right can make all the difference in the world.

4. Feeling, believability, and loyalty. Rupert Grint is really an excellent actor, you know? He comes across as just a regular guy you might know from anywhere in real life, but he's really good at getting a range of emotions across in a way that you believe instantly and that you feel. As a result, you totally believe what's going on. You find yourself inside the characters' heads, wanting them to succeed. Obviously a lot of his method is film-specific; voice tone, facial expression, etc. In writing, you can't describe each tic of each facial muscle, or drip your dialogue tags with adverbs. What you've got to do, though, is somehow get inside your character's head and feelings to that same degree, so that when your MC is jealous, or depairing, or wildly in love, your reader feels that along with your character. It's a matter of interiority and voice and point of view. The way you do it in writing is different than in film, but in both, it's absolutely essential that you do it if you want your story to carry any sort of resonance with your reader/viewer.

What about you? Have you learned anything from film that translates to novel writing?

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