Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part III

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Sentence Fluency and Conventions

(If you’re just tuning in on this series, be sure to check out Part I: Ideas and Organization and Part II: Voice and Word Choice!)

What I love about blogging is the chance to really explore ideas about writing. This series has been a fun way to make comparisons between movies and writing and see what surfaces! What can movies teach us about the six traits?

For sentence fluency, I think one answer lies in a little experiment of observation. As you watch this clip below, I want you to NOTICE the cuts. The reason I say it that way is because usually we don’t — unless the film editors have done a poor job. Usually the cuts are so natural that we easily shift from one angle to the next. But if you force yourself to notice, you can observe a lot about how they make it smooth, I think.

For one thing, did you notice how Harold (Will Ferrell) walking around the store creates a sense of flow? If each shot had cut straight to him already in front of each guitar, if would have worked okay, but it would be more jarring. Instead, they cut one angle as he starts to move away from a guitar and then pick up the next angle as he’s walking toward a new one. It creates flow between the shots, and the cuts become nearly invisible, leaving us to focus on the meaning of how the scene impacts the story.

Sentences in writing have to be the same way. They have to flow so smoothly that we hardly notice them — unless to occasionally notice a sentence as breathtaking as a beautiful shot in a movie. Other than that, the sentences should simply be working together to gradually, piece by piece, feed us a story.

Here are two examples I love — books that pull you into the flow of the sentences from the first page. Notice the first won the Newbery and the second won the Pulitzer, so I’m not the only one who thinks the writing’s good here.

From Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008):

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

From Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004):

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’d had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this — it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then — I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

What I think both of these do so well, among many, many other things, is that they pull us into the story, sentence by sentence, and show us piece by piece what’s going on. Every sentence builds on the one before it to bring the picture into focus. Neil Gaiman doesn’t tell us there was a murderer on the stairs, and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t bother to tell us who “I” is or “you.” They build their story one sentence at a time like camera angles, showing us one shot smoothly followed by another angle until the scene is clear.

The last thing that’s left, then, is conventions.

For that, I want to show you the work a company called Imaginary Forces did for the movie (500) Days of Summer. Anybody’s who’s seen the movie probably remembers these animation sequences, just brief shots of the same cityscape over and over with the seasons and weather changed to fit the mood of the story and the number telling us what point in the story we were at (since the organization isn’t chronological).

 

Conventions in writing are like everything that happens after the shots have been pieced together. These scene-change animations were some of the very last things to be done on the movie. Once all your shots are put together — all your sentences strung — you then have to make every detail perfect. Yes, this means every comma in the right spot and all those sorts of decisions, like making sure the boom mic isn’t hanging down into any of the shots. But it also means creating the visual appeal of the writing.

Sometimes, it even means breaking with “conventional” conventions and trying something a little different that might make meaning clearer, like the split-screen scenes in (500) Days of Summer where Tom’s expectations play on one side, amping up the heartbreak. 

Lest we think this only happens in movies, though, think about how it works in novels. Publishers have design teams that choose the font and the layout of the pages and the look of the cover and all of that. I’ve seen some books where the designers had to use layout to make the story clearer, such as by adding to the margins the name of the character currently narrating (as in Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped).

Or think of how Stephenie Meyer in New Moon has four pages in a row with only one word on them: the name of a month. It’s not conventional — certainly not the norm — but it’s a convention that is very effective for that story.

(I’ve heard they use that convention in the movie, too, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

But again I have to reiterate that conventions are about appeal as well as clarity. Publishers make books aesthetically appealing the same way Imaginary Forces makes the scene changes of the five hundred days look appealing.

One book I just finished this week — Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor — is an especially great example of visual appeal. If you get the chance to flip through it at a book store or library or whatever, do. Christopher Stengel did an amazing job on the design — from the spine and flaps of the jacket to red borders and drop caps — and that combined with Jim di Bartolo’s gorgeous illustrations and Laini’s incredible writing made me want to keep opening the book again and looking at it some more, which led to reading it some more and feeling like I had something truly beautiful in my hands.

As lone writers (i.e. those of us without publishing teams yet), we make decisions about presentation, too. We put our manuscripts into the professional-looking “manuscript format”; we design our blogs to look appealing by choosing colors and font sizes and images that we think will help draw people in. And yes, we put commas and semicolons and all those other things in the best places, and proofread for typos, mostly so that no one will be distracted by a boom mic dropping down.

After all, the point of all these six traits is that you start with the most important one — ideas — and you work your way through, perfecting the rest down to the tiniest conventions so that, with all the details in place, your audience will be drawn to your ideas through all the other traits.

What do you think? How have movies helped you understand good writing and storytelling? What books have drawn you right in with the flow of the sentences or even just the look of them? I’d love to know what you’ve observed, and what you think of this series. Thanks for reading and being part of my somewhat-rambling explorations!

Leave a comment!

[UPDATE: Just for some nice irony and to show the importance of having someone else proofread, I want to note that my hubby found a typo in this post the day after I published it. I honestly proofread many, many times before publishing. I had, however, failed to utilize spell-check, and that showed three additional typos. So (a) even English teachers aren’t perfect, and (b) conventions need an extra set of eyes, the first of which should be spell-check!]

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8 responses »

  1. I feel like I have so many great ideas on things to fix in my novel based on this. I’ve been struggling with some scene transitions, so thank you!

    I have to admit, I bought the book A Curse as Dark as Gold based solely on the title and the cover. I think it’s the only book I’ve ever done that with. From the first paragraph, I loved it. Everything felt so real and vivid in it.

    I also loved the examples from the workshop over the summer and have been noticing more and more how movies tell us what the character really loves and is missing. For example, Ariel swimming through shark infested waters to get a fork.

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    • Hooray! I’m so glad this series was helpful for somebody. I know that for me analyzing movies and TV is my way of making the time “vegging” more worthwhile. If I’m constantly questioning story, I’m learning more about how to make mine better!

      And I love it when a cover makes you pick up a book and then the first paragraph hooks you. I think that’s awesome. It means both the writer and the publisher did a lot of things right. 🙂

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  2. You’ve done a fabulous job with the series. I loved your insight on the conventions of something like 500 days of summer, because I feel like I’ll have to do something like that in my book because it jumps around so much.

    You have a gift for flow that I envy, even in your blog posts!

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    • Thanks! The fun thing about blogging for me has been generating ideas like this. It’ll be cool to see what you come up with for your book. I love it when books/movies do something out of the ordinary, and I’m sure yours will be awesome!

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  3. This is a great series! I love watching movies and reading books, so it’s the perfect combination to me. It makes me want to rewatch some of my favorite movies (where I already know the story line) and look for these “extras.” Thanks for sharing it. 😀

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