Learning how to write is like making a quilt. You start with a lot of different materials, stringing them together to create something beautiful. But the thing about quilts is that they aren’t usually made from just one material and often made out of scraps.
What I’m going to discuss today is the idea of turning ideas from other mediums such as film and adapting them to the written word. It seems like it’d be a difficult thing but many ideas are actually fairly universal from what I’ve seen.
It goes without saying that writing for film is very different for writing for novels. Same goes for TV, comics, newspaper strips and video games. But when you get right down to it a lot of their concepts can be used in pretty much any medium. Take for instance on the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting Tony Zhou made a video essay on how he creates his video essays. In the video it he plays a clip of South Park co-creator Trey Parker talking about how they properly structure an average episode of South Park using the words “therefore” and “but” (Not “butt”, but that appears pretty frequently too in South Park). This way it avoids repetition or the notorious “and then”, instead favouring cause and effect. This way you can avoid things just happening for no reason and the dreaded Deus ex Machina. By applying something that was intended for TV we can improve our other writing.
In Tony’s video In Praise of Chairs he discusses how chairs are useful analogies of characters and can be extensions of the world around these characters or their situation. While often appearing in a visual medium this can very easily be reapplied to textual writing. The idea of having the scenery reflect the character’s situation is not a new one but it is effective nonetheless.
Okay, that might be a little too simple. So how about something more complex? Something that logically only applies to film? In his video on ensemble staging he looks at the South Korean movie Memories of Murder and early on makes an interesting observation.
“What a film director really directs is the audience’s attention.”
He then goes on to show how having all the actors in the same frame performing together allows multiple stories to occur at once very smoothly as well as things like how we pay attention to people that are speaking and those who are being spoken to and how emphasis is given to actors who are closer to the lens or moving. But how can we use something like this when writing a novel? Here’s one example I can think of.
Say you are focusing on an intense discussion or an argument between two characters who are arguing about a third character that is present with them. As the writing follows the first two characters getting into their argument focus is given to the third character, but it gradually gives less and less description of what the third character is doing as the argument becomes more heated until all we think about is the argument between the first two. At the high point of their argument it’s revealed that the third character has disappeared, fleeing the scene or being abducted by a fourth party. I feel this mirrors the method of subtly moving the camera to get certain characters out of focus and create emphasis, like Tony explains from 3:12 to 3:37 of the video. Focusing on the argument between the first two characters is a method of not only showing how they are becoming more heated in their argument and paying less attention to the world around them, but it also narrows the focus of the reader as well allowing the reveal to be surprising for the readers as well as the characters.
This is just a tiny fraction of what can be learned from other mediums and you can see it everywhere. Chuck Jones often told his animators to read classic literature to better understand their inspiration when working on Looney Tunes. Inspiration is easy to come by and techniques are very much the same, as common as thread and cloth. Now all you need to make a great story is a needle.