Reprise: And The Nominee For Best Director in a Novel Is…

In honor of last night’s Oscars, and because I continue to sweat over the impending due-date for my Six Core Competencies manuscript (the first half), here’s a reprise of an early Storyfix post that got a lot of reader feedback. 

Back soon.

Say what?  Best director in a novel?

Last night I was watching some tube (my way to chill, wife by my side, ice cream bar in hand… I should be reading, I know) and I caught back-to-back season premieres on TNT, both with similar set-ups (undercover good guys scamming despicable bad guys).  One sucked, the other didn’t.

It got me to thinking about what makes a story work. 

And since I wasn’t reading and breaking down novels like I should have been, the context of that inquiry kept me in the realm of movies and television.   I thought about how different the worlds of novels and films are from a creative-process point of view, and why that difference is important to both novelists and screenwriters.

With novels it’s all about the writer.  In film making it’s all about the director.  Which is why they have egos the size of Steven Spielberg’s trophy case — their creative meetings are much more well-attended than ours are.

In film the director is the storyteller, the auteur. 

The screenwriter is just a supporting player who may or may not even be allowed on set.  And while screenwriters everywhere decry this travesty (they have to settle for the serious money they make), we have to line up behind the truth of it.  And, learn from it.

As the primary storyteller, the director knows it’s about more than the script.  Way more.

Story is the sum of all the human senses. 

It’s about a melding of those senses that exceeds the sum of the individual parts, including the script.  That’s the art of directing.  You can teach the craft of it, but the art of directing a story remains undefinable and elusive.

Yet, it is accessible if you know what you’re shooting for.

Screenwriters don’t touch the lighting.  They don’t write the score, they barely influence the acting and they claim little credit for the visceral tonality of the work.  They provide a necessary and occasionally appreciated blueprint for it all, and when they’re good, an inspiring vision.  But at the end of the movie-making day it’s the director who makes or breaks a story through an artful and rendering of these creative variables, one that bears their unique stamp as a storyteller.

Novelists would be well served to remember this. 

We need to understand that we create our stories from a similar context.  We sit in the director’s chair from the moment we lay eyes on our manuscripts, and we better understand how to wield the directorial storytelling tools at our disposal.

All of us who write novels do this intuitively to some degree.  It’s when we move from intuition to proactive direction that we unleash our power as storytellers.

It’s about more than plot and character and dialogue. 

It resides beyond our pretty sentences and clever ideas.  It’s about the art of stirring them together into something powerful and evocative, a whole in excess of the sum of its literary parts.

We light our scenes through a keen sense of place.  We command ambiance, we create silhouettes and cast shadows and contrast.  We do it through implication and context, seasoned with the perfect word at the perfect moment.

We score our narrative with the subtle melody of our sentences.  We imbue our stories with background music that defines mood and imparts tonality.  If you don’t think writers can bring music to the page, read Updike or Colin Harrison or Dashiell Hammett, writers whose literary musicality and phrasing defines their work.

We whisper direction into the ears of the actors on our stage.  We urge them to go deeper, to pull back or lash out, to play coy, to leverage the unspoken with their eyes, their body language, their smiles.  We are masters of restraint and excess.  We block scenes, we frame shots, we create pace on the editing floor of our minds.  We define our players as supremely cool or place them on the precipice of madness.

We choreograph our love scenes with a deft touch that embraces readers in a vicarious swoon.  We splash violence on the page, and we can smell the blood and the terror.  Like Hitchcock, we command the darkness of the human mind, and like Speilberg, we resurrect the child in all of us.

Like film direcors, we command tonality. 

We summon a sub-text of humor or fear, of impending doom or the proximity of delight.  It’s more than sentences and scenes, more than plot and character.  At least when it works.

All of it must be smoothed into our narrative with a light and artful touch, lest it come off forced or contrived.  Less is more, yet more is required.  Readers have an infallible sense of this, and we serve at their pleasure as we paint the landscapes of our stories and sculpt the nuances of our characters.

When a writer realizes they must create stories from this directorial perspective, everything changes.  None of it can manifest in an outline, it is all touch, all sensibility, all art.

And that’s why one of those TNT shows sucked and the other didn’t.  One was clunky and pedestrian and without art, despite great actors and a killer concept.   It was poorly directed.   The other just worked… it flowed, it penetrated, even though it had plot holes that would swallow a lesser effort.

Good direction often goes unnoticed by viewers, who simply get lost in the experience it creates.  But bad direction always screams its inadequacies.

So it is with novels, too. 

Even when the story is sound and craft is solidly in place.  Art is the great differentiator.  And art is in the direction.

If you’ve ever wondered why some writers who, in your humble opinion, don’t write as well as you do yet are rich and famous while you struggle onward, this is the reason.  They are great directors.

It is, bottom line, what separates the published from the unpublished.


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4 Responses to Reprise: And The Nominee For Best Director in a Novel Is…

  1. zz

    Thanks for the great advice. Commanding tonality. How to go from”It was a dark and stormy night…” to setting the tone subtly?

  2. Often we have difficulty in distinguishing between what is our art or creativity and what is technique.

    In Larry’s Six Core Competencies, there’s a mix of art and technique; none of the competencies are purely artistic and none are purely technique.

    The “easy” way to distinguish between technique and art is that technique can be drilled until it becomes a standard tool which will give you a known result. This is putting in the story structure, constructing a scene and so on. It’s also knowing your authoring tools, such as Word, so well you don’t even have to think about how to do something.

    The art or creativity cannot be drilled because it results in a different end product each time — which is really a good thing.

    A director (or you as an author in this case) knows his available techniques cold. He might not know every last detail about lighting, cinematography, etc., but knows enough that he can request a certain result from the appropriate branch. The art lies in defining what result he wants and when.

    Create first. Create high. Ramp up that story concept so high it gets scorched by 10,000 stars. Now you figure out how to make the techniques you have available communicate that concept so you give your readers a powerful emotional experience.

    “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

  3. Well put. I keep reading that execution is more important than the story itself. I think that applies to both the art and structure of it.

  4. This was one of my favourite posts, Larry. It brought up all sorts of analogies, ranging from choreographers to conductors.

    I think good writers do even more than direct. Among other things, they have to hear and create a musical score and do the kind of casting that can make or break the experience.

    I also think your last comparison is sound. I suspect lots of writers have élitist aspirations, looking down their noses at the millions of readers who buy best selling series and at the writers who make their living satisfying those readers. (I have an author friend who assumed Dan Brown must be rubbish because he sold so many books and claimed to be writing ‘facts’ and who couldn’t understand why JK Rowling was so popular, given that her books were ‘easy enough’ for kids to read.) They’re the kind of writers who, if they were directors, would probably be happier if their film became a cult classic rather than a blockbuster. I guess in a lot of cases writers fail to make lots of money because it clashes with their real goal of becoming a ….. fill in the blanks….author.