Improve Your Authorial Voice Not By Writing, But By Watching

Note: This post originally appeared on the website WriterUnboxed. This is the one of several WU guest posts I’ll reprint here on my site.

lights_camera_action_by_gavbee-249x300.jpg

I love reading prose fiction -- but in my heart of hearts, I'm a movie junkie. It's a brilliant way to economically tell stories, and I enjoy the creative constraints the medium has: running time, MPAA ratings, budget. The mission? To cram as much narrative -- both spoken and unspoken -- into the frame as possible.

Notice that I said "unspoken." That's key. I believe prose fiction writers can easily learn about voice by watching and studying movies -- especially when they pay attention to those unspoken bits.

Writing great books and short stories hinges greatly on your authorial voice -- but always remember that your voice requires tonal flexibility. This can be defined by a character's point of view, the pacing of a scene, or what's happening in that scene. Thoughtful characters and slower-paced scenes can permit a more lyrical authorial voice; peppy characters and action sequences often demand something else.

Now I can't tell you how to craft your voice; I believe your personal world view defines most of that. I also believe that the best authorial voices don't attract attention to themselves. But if you're looking for ways to appropriately use your voice for characters and scenes, I suggest popping in a DVD, muting the volume, and watching what unfolds.

Don't watch the actors. Try to ignore the blitz-cut editing. Forget trying to decipher what's being said. Instead, look for what's happening in the frame overall -- mostly the use of colors, color saturation and lighting. In the hands of filmmaking masters, these techniques represent the invisible art of cinema: the ability to wordlessly evoke emotion. To me, they represent the "voice" of the overall film, or a particular scene.

I think there’s wisdom there ... and if you look for patterns, you'll find them. For instance, most films these days depict workplace interiors -- no matter how much sunshine is streaming through the locale’s windows -- as cold, emotionless, antiseptic places. Filmmakers achieve this by clever lighting, or by processing the film (or digital footage) in such a way to suck the color from the moving images. The result is often a gray- or blue-tinged scene, with its characters looking as happy as a herd of zombies.

This is an immediate, visually tonal manipulation of the story. A word of dialogue may never be uttered, and yet we're emotionally steered in a particular direction. Our brains "get it," even if we as viewers never consciously get it.

Contrast that with movie scenes that take place in a happy home. There's often lots of lush, warm-colored wood, and amber, creamy tones in the frame. Subconsciously, our brains do the math: our society associates this palate of colors with warmth and comfort. Again, the "voice" of the unfolding narrative invisibly connects the overall setting with how the audience should be feeling.

We've all seen the original Star Wars movie. Contrast the earthy, oil-stained interior of heroic Han Solo's Millennium Falcon spaceship with the spartan hallways of the villains' Death Star battle station. This visual information alone conveys everything we need to know: the good guys are scrappy, underfunded ragamuffins ... and the bad guys are (literally) as imperious as it gets.

If you can make the esoteric leap from the visual voice of cinema to the narrative voice of prose fiction, you'll notice ways to appropriately use your authorial voice when handling specific characters, scenes or events within a scene. Just as oil stains would be forbidden in the halls of the Death Star, certain words and writerly observations would appear incongruous in particular scenes.

Is a violence-packed action sequence best served by lyrical, multisyllabic flowery prose? Probably not. Does a contemplative scene work best with clipped, one- or two-word paragraphs? Probably not. Using creative flexibility in your narrative's tone, vocabulary and sentence structure is absolutely critical to capturing the emotional core of your story. You may have a distinctive authorial voice, but be sure to tweak it as needed, depending on what's happening in your tale.

If you can do that, you’ll control the invisible -- yet critical -- art of emotionally moving people.

So pop in a few DVDs, and dial down the volume. See what filmmaking maestros do with color, set design and other visual cues, and try applying those tonal techniques to your own writing voice.

--J.C.

What's The ULTIMATE Revenge Movie?

( Probably not the ultimate revenge movie.)
(Probably not the ultimate revenge movie.)

I've spent the past few months chipping away at a few screenplays. One script -- a supernatural balls-to-the-wall actioner with a magma-hot hook -- is presently getting a polish by me and a co-writer (whose name I cannot yet divulge). Another screenplay started with a very strong concept, but competing obligations prevented another co-writer from dedicating appropriate creative bandwidth to the project. It's on ice for the time being.

Which happily frees my queue to pursue a third story, which I've been noodling on for nearly a year. The hook of this script prominently features themes with which 7th Son and Personal Effects fans are familiar: identity, sanity, and sanctity (both of the human body and mind). It also levels both barrels at many consumption- and brand-obsessed First World cultures.

I dare not share more about the concept, other than to say that this "near future" world I've created is one you've never seen, and the culture specifically will make your head spin like a top. Spin in a That's some cool shit kind of way.

I believe the very best sci-fi stories resonate because they successfully incorporate subgenres into their tales. Blade Runner's noir elements help make that unfamiliar world more accessible to a viewer. Consider Serenity's Western elements; they help deliver similar results. I contend that using mainstream-friendly subgenres helps make sci-fi feel palatable to wider audiences. It helps the story feel less sci-fi-ish, which I believe is a good thing.

I've been thinking hard about which subgenre to inject into my latest story ... and today, I turned my wicked eye toward the revenge movie. I love revenge flicks, as a third act filled with whup-ass is guaranteed. In addition, the subgenre plays nice with the loose outline I created for this story.

Unforgiven is my personal favorite revenge flick, but I knew I needed more reference material for creative inspiration. So I turned to YOU on Twitter and Facebook and asked:

What's the *very best* revenge movie you've seen? You can only pick one. Go!

And you sure as hell did. Here are your recommendations. There are some hella great flicks here. Fill up that Netflix queue, peeps.

  • Wes Platt recommends: El Mariachi
  • Tanya N. Kutasz: The Italian Job (the remake)
  • DC Perry, Brand Gamblin, Tony Southcotte, Jessika Oxford: Oldboy
  • Jared Axelrod: The Limey
  • Ted Wade, Adam Lefever, Ted Wade, Michelle Ristuccia: The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Tony Mast: Braveheart
  • Kevin Smokler: 9 to 5
  • Zach Ricks: Man on Fire
  • Scott Roche, Vivid Muse: Leon - The Professional
  • Johnny Ho, Jane Doh, Eliza Sea: Lady Vengeance
  • Tee Morris, Amber: The Sting
  • Neil Colquhoun: Jaws
  • C.C. Chapman: Hard Candy
  • Mary Rajotte: Heathers
  • Allen Sale: Theater of Blood
  • Seth, Karl Schild: Payback
  • Christiana Ellis, Duncan, Michael Falkner, Matthew Wayne Selznick, Tim Adamec: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
  • Martyn Casserly, Edward G. Talbot, Leandro Pezzente: The Princess Bride
  • Trisha Leigh: Lucky Number Slevin
  • Richard Green, Avery Tingle, Aaron Baldwin, Void Munashii: Kill Bill
  • Stuart Robertson, Billy Flynn: The Crow
  • Clinton: Aliens
  • Thomas Janci: Revenger's Tragedy
  • Douglas Hagler: Ransom
  • Josh Rosenfield: The Prestige
  • Adam Loyal: Dirty Work
  • J.R. Blackwell: Titus
  • James Auger: Memento
  • Gary Giovanetti: Death Race (the remake)
  • Robert Smith: Mad Max
  • Howard Dinatale: Get Carter (the original)
  • Dave Minkus: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Gregory Gunther: Taken
  • Carlene Worthington: Repo

I've seen a lot of these ... and there's a lot I haven't seen, or even heard of. The Count of Monte Cristo is absolutely the quintessential revenge story (I loved reading it way back in high school, and should revisit it), and the countless recommendations for Oldboy have my curiosity majorly piqued. Thanks to everyone who recommended their favorites.

I hope you'll check out some of these cool revenge flicks too. And if you'd like to recommend your ULTIMATE revenge flick pick, sound off in the comments!

--J.C.