August 15, 2012

Learning Better Writing In The Absence of Words

This past weekend I finally got around to watching a movie that I've been dying to see for awhile. I haven't watched it up until now because, well, I am the ONLY person in my house who was interested in it. The movie in question was The Artist. It's almost entirely a silent film.

It got great reviews and won lots of awards which combined with it's homage to the silent film era put it on my must see list, but put it firmly OFF of my husband's. If it doesn't have military dudes, aliens, zombies, and/or lots of explosions it is not his thing. Ever. So this week when he went out for a long run and the kids were zonked out for the night, I finally ordered the movie and settled in for an Amy-centric movie night. I was not disappointed. This movie utterly rocked...just not OUT LOUD.

Now before we go any further, you should know that I'm a sucker for musicals and movies made long before I was born. Brigadoon is still one of my favorites (if you mention this movie in front of my brother he'll STILL grown about how often I watched it). So keep that in mind as you read this and also if you decide to use this post as a reason to go rent The Artist. If Charlie Chaplin doesn't thrill you and dance numbers put you to sleep...this is probably not your thing either and you can join my husband in pointedly ignoring this movie.

BUT if you are a writer, no matter what your preference, you should stick around a moment because this movie gave me more than one writerly epiphany as I watched it. The most important being this: You can learn a lot about putting together a good story by seeing one unfold with little or no words attached to it. Think of it. Telling a story with only the characters' facial expressions, actions, and music. A challenge of epic proportions, right? I think it is and while I watched the actors in The Artist pull it off, I got to thinking about how I could take some of what was happening in this film and apply it to my writing to improve it. Here's what I learned:

1. Action can absolutely speak just as loud if not louder than character interiority when used properly. In the movie the wife of the main character is slowly starting to hate him. She can't exactly yell this at him because we can't hear it...but what she does is funny and telling and perfect. While he's reading the paper every morning in blissful ignorance, she defiles his pictures, drawing overly large moustaches on his upper lip and blacking in some of his teeth to make them look like they're missing. We never get in her head outside of these actions, but we absolutely know how she feels. Now, I'm not talking about a whole bunch of adverb laden descriptions of body language here like: he arched one eyebrow mischeviously, but actual physical action described in a very active way.

Example created from a scene in the movie ( I know, there is some interiority, but most of what's here is physical): She bent over a bit too far in an effort to grab her pen and paper from the sidewalk and felt her body go out of balance, tip forward before she could catch herself. She tumbled out past the barricade of police officers and  straight into her idol, the man whose autograph she'd been so hoping to get. He made no move to catch her. Instead he backed away, his jaw set into a grim line. She stood up with effort, her body righting itself an inch at a time. She felt her mouth twitching. Should she frown too or try to laugh off her clumsiness?

2. Physical characteristics/traits/clothing items (or lack there of) when used properly and intentionally, can speak volumes about your character. In the movie the male lead is a veteran silent movie actor who runs into the female lead quite by accident. She is a young aspiring actress and he takes her under his wing. He tells her that she needs something to distinguish herself from the pack, something to make people notice her. He draws a small beauty mark in the corner of her mouth, his suggestion on how to be different and it ends up being the very thing that makes her famous...her first leading film role is named for it.

The mole becomes not just a physical trait of hers but a symbol of how he helped her become a success even as his own career languishes. She can't look in the mirror without being reminded of him every time she draws on that mole. Genius. It deepens the story on so many levels (watch the movie and see what I mean), it tells us that part of him lingers with her even when they take different paths, and so much more. Conversely, the male lead has a tuxedo that he wears that's indicative of his old school status as a silent film star who isn't interested in moving with the times. Eventually he is forced to sell the tuxedo, which hints at how much of himself he has no choice but to abandon when the film industry changes.

3. Tap into a person's emotions and they'll stick with your story without intending to. My husband came home before the movie finished. At first he gave me the exaggerated eye rolls and pointed stares to "for the love of all that's holy, change the channel already", but after about five minutes, became totally engrossed in the film, watching it with me until the end. We even discussed it a little after it was over. He actually admitted that it was pretty good! I think it's because the actors did such a fantastic job of making their characters relatable without ever having to say a word. They showed us why they were worth watching. They tapped into our humor and heartstrings and gave us a story well told. ( Just don't tell him I told you this, it'll wreck his Jason Stratham-loving reputation...the one he's cultivated in his own mind)

4. A highly developed plot coupled with believable, relatable, and vivid characters is half the battle. Your words can be beautiful, perfection on paper, but if the story and characters aren't there, no one will stick around to read them.

There is more to be mined from this movie, of that I am certain, but this is what I took away from it. Are there any movies that taught you a thing or two about your writing? If so, drop me a comment and let me know!


  1. Great post, Amy - I haven't seen The Artist yet, but I really want to! For me, the film that's taught me the most about writing (and that started me writing in the first place, actually), is Jurassic Park. I see my books in my head like films as I write, and this film taught me so much about how to write action scenes. I still love it even after all this time! :)

  2. How cool that Jurassic Park started you writing! I LOVE that movie too!!! It is perfect for writing action scenes.