If You’re Teaching Novel-Writing, Get Out Of My Face About Film

iStockphoto / lpettet
iStockphoto / lpettet

“Remember In That Movie When Tom Hanks…?”

If you’re lucky, what follows is a well-chosen and interesting example of something the session leader wants a roomful of book writers to think about.

But that session leader is missing his or her mark.

If you’re going to teach novel-writing, teach novel-writing.

If you’re going to teach screenplay, teach that.

They are not the same. I don’t care about that time when Tom Hanks….

During this past weekend’s just-concluded and really excellent Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (#WDNWC14) in Los Angeles, it became apparent that too many instructors like to invoke cinematic examples for written-word issues. It also became apparent that they know they’re on ice that’s a lot less thick than their excuses.

“I know, movies and books aren’t the same — but it’s all storytelling.” That’s how one of them at #WDNWC14 intoned the great “I don’t want any questions about this” position on the matter — quickly — before running a clip from some film, ostensibly to make a point about novel technique.

These folks — most of them completely well-meaning, by the way — are more wrong than right as they dive into the YouTube video vault to show you how some fine director orchestrated his crew and cast and score and lighting and costumes and makeup and sets (location, backlot or soundstage). and graphics and film edits and those best boys (forever) to do…hm…well, let’s see…what were you trying to do with a keyboard on a “page” in your Word software…?

Oh, yeah! You were writing a book. Damn it. Not a movie.

“It’s All Storytelling”

  • Sitting on the highest rock in the cave and speaking a story to your fellow cave dwellers is storytelling — and the technique of that oral performance is seriously different from what you do to correctly install your story on a page of written text in a novel, whether digital or papyrus.
  • Reading a 20-second script from your TelePrompTer is a news anchor’s version of storytelling, but it sure isn’t what the novelist does to do the job in a book.
  • And watching from behind your popcorn as Ben Whishaw flattens an 18th-century French village with his unutterably beautiful Perfume on a screen is an unforgettable way to intake The Story of a Murderer. But Tom Tykver’s directorial genius surely isn’t the same thing as what the novelist Patrick Süskind’s lines of text on a page did to tell us that tale first, in his 1985 book (which many of us thought was unfilmable).
Patrick Süskind
Patrick Süskind

It doesn’t wash, this “oh, it’s all storytelling” rationale. Because it’s not the same storytelling. Not the same kind, not the same technique, not the same talent needed, not the same skill applied or in theory.

If it were all the same, then why wouldn’t these novel-craft teachers haul out opera? Or modern dance? Or classical ballet? Or commedia dell’arte? Or theatrical performance? Aren’t those “all storytelling,” too? Well, of course they are. But they’re not what the average novel-how-to teacher sees from her or his couch.

I had the pleasure of flying from Los Angeles with la Repubblica’s film critic Silvia Bizio from Rome, my former home. Delta was showing Million Dollar Arm, the go-to-India-and-find-a-pitcher baseball film with Alan Arkin and Jon-Hamm-trying-to-escape-Don-Draper-good-luck-with-that-buddy.

The film’s MTFAS rating? 12. The MTFAS rating is the Minutes To Fall Asleep rating for a film. I made it up. Credit me when you steal it. But it took me 12 minutes to fall asleep on that film. If you have a drink first, you may not even make it 12 minutes into that thing.

And notice, I’m not speaking for La Bizio — as a film critic, she must weigh in with her own astute assessment of films. Not being on the film beat (I critique other arts), I’m free to tell you, quite freely, my own MTFAS. (The Motion Picture Academy is quaking, you know.)

Don’t try telling me, “Remember in that movie when Jon Hamm….?” because I was well and truly asleep before Hamm did any such thing. That’s the problem with feel-good flicks. You know how they’ll end. Why stay awake when sleeping feels good-er (sorry) than the film?

The Unpleasant Implications

How well do these teachers of novel writing actually know novel-craft? You could be forgiven for wondering this when they keep singing “Hooray for Hollywood!” every time they need to illustrate something.

You’d think they might be a little thin on their reading, wouldn’t you? Maybe they don’t actually know what passages in books illustrate what they need to illustrate. Maybe they watch more than they read. And maybe that’s not very reassuring if what you’re there to do is to work on writing novels not on filmmaking, as much as we all  may revere the glories of cinema. (It’s not theater, by the way, and you don’t see it in a theater. It’s film and you see it in a cinema. And yes, I lost that one decades ago.)

You know how film actors love to swear in their late-night interviews that “the stage has always been my first love”… and they haven’t been off a film set in 32 years?

I’m pretty sure these teachers’ first love is literature, too. But remember in that movie when Tom Hanks…?

Look, of course, it might seem more fun to show everybody a little video. We’re all supposed to be mad for video these days, aren’t we? Everyone tells us how much we love video, never mind that it’s unsearchable, linear, and labor-intensive. Even your sainted mother has taken to reading her recipes for her girlfriends to your father’s shaky job with that Handycam.

But whoa, wait, hang on: don’t we want to make the reading of books a bigger part of our culture? Don’t we need more people to read? Aren’t we worried that film and gaming and video and everything else that beeps, flashes, and burps is cutting into reading?

So is the way to beef up reading really to have our book writers sit around watching film in their training courses? Film may be the prime competitor to reading today, in that it’s slightly to the side of TV, more discretionary. You might read or you might watch a film.

As any Angry Bird can tell you.

The Inevitable Exception

Sure, I’ve got one for you. And I’ll bet there are many more. Far be it from me to give you the pleasure of a hard-and-fast rule.

Philip Athans
Philip Athans

On Saturday, the author Philip Athans gave a two-part seminar on “Living Dialogue” as part of the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference. He and I joked before starting that we should do one next year called “Dying Dialogue: Famous Last Words.”

His sessions were terrific. Smart, concisely informed, right down to correct punctuation in dialogue — and that is what novelists have to know and screenwriters don’t.

Athans used film once. And he got away with it. And I’ll tell you why. He gave us a scene from the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (2000). And he did it to go over “nonverbal dialogue” in Delmar’s (Tim Blake Nelson) river baptism.

Athans rolled the clip repeatedly to show us fields of vision (at one point, three characters, close together, all looking in different directions); symbolic gesture; levels used in the shot to place a supposedly “saved” sinner with outstretched, Christlike arms below the level of two comfortably unsaved crooks, an unholy trinity in a Sunday-go-to-meetin’ scenario.

This was a way Athans could attune the conference’s novel-writing attendees to the nonverbal dialogue capabilities of a couple of masters of (yes, different) storytelling like Joel and Ethan Coen.

It was not Athans’ attempt to say that the film language on display was the novelist’s language under scrutiny. In act, he kept saying to the class, “You have to be able to make that gesture happen in writing, on the page.”

This, then, was a brief, singular use of film that had a keenly unique purpose: to teach nonverbal dialogue, Athans needed a way to give us just such a dialogue — both between characters and between author and reader. It was well thought-through, not blithely excused.

And the rest of Athans’ examples? Straight from books — Zane Grey, Faulkner, Jamie Ford, Burroughs, Susanna Clarke, Steinbeck, Shirley Jackson, and others. His slides gave us the text, the references, the authors, etc.

Don’t Shoot Any Close-Ups About Who’s “To Blame”

Just to be clear, this is not a problem of the Writer’s Digest (WD) conference.

Phil Sexton
Phil Sexton

WD publisher Phil Sexton — as ever ahead of the curve — has perceived with sure-footed coordination, long before many other confab organizing teams, the fact that the author corps is up to its clapperboard in business-focused gatherings.

The craft, the art, the techniques of the laborer-in-language? — that stuff has languished while everybody ran around the room shouting about the industry! the industry! and about how authors need to business-up.

Sexton’s program does a lot to begin rebalancing that understandable over-emphasis on entrepreneurism of the last few years.

Without denying new demands of professionalism and commercial savvy — in fact, with a lot of discussion in many sessions along those lines — Writer’s Digest’s three-day fiction-focused effort re-ignites many of the long-smoldering challenges of, yes, storytelling by the bookish for the bookish.

It’s a strong development in our writing-conference season, a great follow-up to the early-August WD Annual Conference in New York, and, as usual, F+W Media’s key staffers — Taylor Jacobs Sferra, Sam Stanford, Elizabeth Dean, Sam Hammer Mitchell, Rachel Randall, et al — are more than up to the task.

And meanwhile, if you’re not making it to a conference any time soon, watch the how-to blogs — you’ll find “gurus” all over those sites asking you to “remember in that movie when Tom Hanks…”

What do you think? Is all this use of film strange to you, too? Or would you rather watch films and talk about them than read and write books, anyway? If that’s the case, let me know what Tom Hanks did. I’ll be busy reading. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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