Years ago, I attended a novel-writing workshop. The presenter, a prolific novelist, opened the session by putting a DVD in the player and playing the opening scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny, the Joe Pesci comedy where Joe is a street-wise, New Yorker who just recently passed the bar ex.He is called down to a small town down south to defend his cousin and his cousin’s buddy who are charged with murdering someone while passing through town on their way to start college.
But you probably knew that.
The opening scene of the movie has no dialogue. it’s just a music montage following the boys’ car as they travel from New York, down south, headed to college. We know all this just by looking at the details; road signs, what they have in the backseat of their green convertible, the license plates. That, in fact, was the point of the exercise: to see how much information we could glean about these characters just by what was given to us on screen with no narration and no dialogue.
It was a very effective exercise. But it strikes me now as a weird choice for a novel writing class. We were learning about writing prose, not screenplays. One is all about the written word; conveying ideas on the page through reading. The other is about telling a story visually.
So why, when writers teach other writers,do they always go to movies and TV shows for examples? My Cousin Vinny. Mad Men. Lost. These all get trotted out for examples. A novelist and blogger I really like, Chuck Wendig, frequently cites the Die Hard movies when he talks about plotting. (By the way, check out his site, terribleminds. It’s fully of awesome, profane wisdom)
Why not try to prove a writing point about setting by citing a passage from a Michael Chabon novel; or vivid characters in a Stephen King novel? Do writers just assume other people don’t actually read books? These seminars are often writers talking to other writers. Surely other writers have read books?
Of course they have. So why not use some of those books as reference points? Is it because we watch more TV than we read? Do we assume a greater percentage of the attendees have seen the same shows than have read the same books? Is there something inherent in the visual nature of TV that emphasizes the SHOW in “show, don’t tell” better than passages from the books we’re supposed to be learning how to write?
Writing books should just be different than writing TV right?
Well, maybe not. All story telling is fundamentally the same. Make up characters, build a world, progress the character from A to B, screw with them a lot along the way. Maybe you could have a bunch of writers read from photocopies of some novel to get a point across, but watching a film clip makes more of an impact, fits more with the showmanship aspect of any presentation. And it’s simple.
Confused? Well, here’s let’s just watch this clip from …
Hey, that is easier.