Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The crucial missing piece

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Andrew Bujalski

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a feature in which fourteen screenwriters shared a few of their favorite writing tips. There’s a lot to enjoy here—I particularly liked Jeff Nichols’s description of how he lays out his scene cards—but the most interesting piece of advice comes courtesy of Andrew Bujalski, the writer and director of such mumblecore movies as Computer Chess and Mutual Appreciation. When asked how he writes believable dialogue, Bujalski says:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Which, at first, sounds like just another version of the famous quote attributed to Hemingway: “Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.” But there’s something a little more subtle going on here, which is the fact that the center of a scene—or an entire story—can be made all the more powerful by removing it entirely.

When a writer starts working on any unit of narrative, he generally has some idea of the information it needs to convey: a plot point, an emotional beat, a clarification of the relationship between two characters. Whatever it is, it’s the heart of the scene, and the other details that surround it are selected with an eye to clarifying or enriching that pivotal moment. What’s funny, though, is that when you delete what seems like the crucial piece, the supporting material often stands perfectly well on its own, like a sculpture once the supports have been taken away. And the result often gains in resonance. I’ve noted before that there’s a theory in literary criticism that Shakespeare, who based most of his plays on existing stories, intentionally omits part of the original source material while leaving other elements intact. For instance, in the Amleth story that provided the basis for Hamlet, the lead character feigns madness for a great reason—to protect himself from a plot against his life. The fact that he removes this motivation while preserving the rest of the action goes a long way toward explaining why we find Hamlet, both the play and the character, so tantalizing.

Walter Murch

Still, it’s hard for a writer to bring himself to remove what seems like the entire justification for a scene, and we often only find ourselves doing it in order to solve some glaring problem. Walter Murch, in Behind the Seen, has a beautiful analogy for this:

An interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

Murch goes on to say that much the same thing can happen in film editing: you’ll cut a scene that you thought was essential to the plot, only to find that the movie works even better without it, perhaps because something was being said too explicitly. It can be hard to generate this kind of ambiguity from scratch, and you’ll often find that you need to write that pivotal scene anyway, if only for the sake of excising it. This may seem like a waste of effort, but sometimes you need a big sculptural form to lend shape and meaning to its surroundings, even if you take it out in the end.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2013 at 8:53 am

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