Writing in Images

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“I don’t see him as evil.”

The writer looked at me in dismay. “But it’s in here,” he said, returning to his pages. “Look here where the character says…”

The project: Television pilot.

The problem: Words, words, words.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the words on the page. Those are our tools, right?

But whether you’re talking film, theatre, fiction or non-fiction, it’s not the words on the page that really count. It’s the story the audience takes away that matters. What they experience. And the most powerful way to tell a story is through images.

You want to make someone in power seem evil? Show them in silhouette or from above looking down. Show them smiling after something bad happens.

You want a couple in love? Show them interrupt a task to touch or kiss each other.

A few examples:

“They skirted the northern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.” In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

With few words, Capote captures something familiar and shows it for what it is. Haven’t we all seen those strip malls, the asphalt swamp of parking lots before them, the lights blaring?

“She is thin, and her polka-dot dress is too large. She is clutching the baby and the suitcase as though she were continuously counting them.” The MisfitsArthur Miller.

Miller gives us both an image of the woman and a wonderful characterization. He doesn’t tell her she is anxious, she shows us.

“I see him, ashen, lost inside his clothes, and always, like me now, with a three-day stubble, moving wraithlike without sound through rooms gaunt with summer’s stillness, a stooped figure flickering trace of his passing save a sort of shimmer, a fold in the air, and a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.” Eclipse, John Banville

I love Banville for how he packs images into his writing. In this very long (overly?) sentence, we are shown a very thin man. We aren’t told he’s skinny. He is, “lost inside his clothes,” and that his passing by is evidenced by “a fold in the air.”  We aren’t told he smokes. We are shown “a coiling question-mark of cigarette smoke.”

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein suggests a piece of fiction needs at least one visual on every page. When reviewing a draft he recommends you place a “v” in the margin of every page that has a visual so you can go back and find the pages that are missing a visual.

Readers want to experience writing, not be told about it. They want to make up their own minds, not be told how to interpret. Focusing on images gets you to move from telling to showing.

How much is too much?

As much as I love Banville for his dense use of images, I sometimes wonder if his writing is overworked to the point where style gets in the way of the story. In fact, it becomes the story.

If you’re not writing in images, give it a try. In doing so, you’ll heighten the impact of your writing and find your own balance.

 

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The Ten Rules of Writing

Courtesy of Elmore Leonard:

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not create a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.

The focus should be on character, not places or things.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

If it sounds like writing (aka hooptedoodle), rewrite it.

 

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Rhythm. Energy. It’s in everything we do. As an artist, part of your job is to create energy. To shift the mood of your audience from wherever they are in their real lives to where you want them to be. And it better be someplace special, or who will want to stick around?

aiweiwei_urn2

Ai Weiwei

Visual artists do this with colour and shape and ideas and how these components flow together. They take the familiar and turn it upside down or backwards so we can see it in a new light. For example, Ai Weiwei creating what looks like an ancient ceramic urn bearing the Coca-Cola logo.

When a rock star steps onto the stage, their job is to create energy. Their tools include instrumentation, poetic phrases, dance and encouragement. If they do their job well, we wind up singing across the abyss in bliss with them.

Writers create worlds with words. By careful selection, sentence length, point of view of the writing and characters, we create a swirl of a journey.

When done well, the audience is so caught up, the medium disappears. We’re not looking at an urn, we’re turning our thoughts to how advertising has taken over the world. We’re not at a concert, we’re Walking on the Milky Way. We’re not sitting on the couch reading, we’re fighting dragons in Middle Earth.

We become invested in a two-way, collaborative process, where we are as actively involved in creating meaning for ourselves as the artist was in creating the work. The reward is a pleasure that is most intimate, as if our souls are rewritten and joined together through participation. We feel ourselves open up and see the world afresh.

The act of creation is indeed magical, isn’t it? To start with nothing more than a thought and wind it up into an energy that people recognize. It’s an amazing power; to make people feel something; to bring them into a world of our own making. Nothing is more powerful than that. I call it, “making like a god,” because artists create something out of nothing more than thoughts.

But how does a writer get there?

In creative writing workshops a piece of writing is put on the table and participants dissect what they like/don’t like, believe/don’t believe about it. This teaches writers to dissect their work, not build on it. I’ve got a problem with that.

One of my favourite books on writing is called “How Not to Write a Play,” by Walter Kerr. A key theme of this book:  “the critic dissects, the artist unifies,” and it couldn’t be more apt for would-be writers. Kerr speaks of writing by touch, of how to explore your ideas while keeping your analytical brain at bay until it’s needed.

I find this idea really interesting, particularly in light of recent brain research (Watch the BBC’s The Creative Brain How Insight Works). Apparently, when jazz musicians are improvising, they turn off portions of the pre-frontal lobe of their brain — the bit that controls planning and strategizing. It is also the part that makes us self-conscious, forcing us to control our behaviour.

To shut off the analytical brain and write by touch, you need to find a process that allows you to let your imagination drift without judgement. As many writers put it, it is very much like an archeological dig, where you are trying to uncover ancient gems inside you. As W.H. Auden put it:

“A poet writes ‘The chestnut’s comfortable root’ and then changes this to ‘The chestnut’s customary root.’ In this alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. ‘8357. No, that’s not it. 8557. 8457, no, it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a minute, I’ve got it, 8657. That’s it'”

Auden uses ’emotion,’ I prefer ‘energy’ — because it implies something physical as opposed to internal. Emotion sucks you in, while movement is emotion realized.

Some Tools

To prompt uncovering, I suggest turning to the tools of the method actor.  Here’s a few:

  • Artist’s journal: Big ideas usually start with small and specific images. As you come across examples that demonstrate the texture and timber of life, jot them down. The vacant smile of the sales clerk. The mother’s glance to her daughter, full of love. The flash of anger on the bus driver’s face. The young girl playing lazily in the sand on the beach. The body tension of someone caught in a lie. All of it fodder for characters, moments, exchanges.
  • Music: Do you write while listening to music? Make sure it’s helping you, not standing in your way. Lyrics can  impose language and rhythms into your writing, even if you’re not aware of it. So, choose well. On the other hand, music can help you find energy.  Writing a death scene? Maybe a requiem mass will help. A happy scene? Put on a boppy song that makes you want to move. How can you capture that energy and put it on the page?
  • Play dress up: Find a piece of clothing that puts you in the role you are writing. Look at yourself in the mirror. Feel the texture of the fabric. Smell. How can you use that clothing? Is it getting in the way but the character insists on wearing it?
  • Play act: If you’re in costume, you might as well take it all the way. Imagine yourself in the scene, as if you’re playing to a camera. Play all of the characters, one at a time or all at the same time. Move as they would need to move. Imagine the room where they are. What are the smells? What moments of poignancy do you find? What are the moods of the other people? What actions communicate their moods?
  • Breathe: Breathe? Yes, breathe. As all actors and singers know, the breath impacts emotion. So, let’s say you’re writing a scene about a car chase. Breathing fast and low can help you to get closer to where the character’s emotional world would be. How about a sensuous sex scene? Breathe deep and slowly now as my fingers play with the hairs at the nape of your neck.

Oh, excuse me. Ahem. (straightens her clothing)

  • Pictures: Look for images that get across the mood you want to create. Paste them on the wall or carry them in a folder and flip through them.
  • Write: Create a diary of what life is like for your character for a few normal, boring days. What is bothering them, making them feel insecure? What are their joys? Or write a monologue about an important time from their history that has impacted their character. Perhaps it was a terrifying encounter with a snake or the most joyful moment of their life so far.
  • Read it aloud: When you’re finished writing something, stand up and read it aloud. Feel the rhythms of the dialogue, the flows of description. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Are you caught up, or are you bored? Make notes as you go, revise, print, stand up and do it again.
  • Research: All of what I’ve talked about here could be termed ‘research.’ But to be a bit more academic, you might want to read a book on a topic, or at least Google it. Walk the street where you imagine a scene taking place. Note the cracks in the sidewalk, the sounds, the smells.

 Method madness

Tools like these help actors get under the skin of their characters. To really ‘be’ their characters. To find the energy for the moment at hand. The closer you can get yourself in that energy, the more likely you’ll re-create it on the page. Little details you find in your energy search can become powerful metaphors, or rhythms that can affect how your audience feels. They make your work more real, on an emotional level. And that’s what it’s all about.

Now, this is not to say that using your analytical brain isn’t an important part of the process. But at the wrong point, it can kill creative energy rather than build on it.

Always remember, you are creating a ride of energy for your audience. Don’t pick. Make like a god and create something powerful out of nothing but words.

Do you have an energy search tool that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment.

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