Style and Language

Who are you writing for?

A story is told of a broadcaster, in the first days of radio, who had a beautiful voice but kept stammering every time he confronted the cold, bleak metal of the microphone. His wife knew he loved his horse, and solved the problem by putting a picture of his horse around the microphone. Henceforth, he was talking to his horse, rather than to the anonymous masses.

When I work, I assume that I am writing for a good friend. He is sitting beside me watching the film, and in a simple but effective way, I want to make the film more interesting for him. I'm going to use straightforward and conversational language, rather than pompous or superintellectual phrases. However, I am going to turn my imagination loose, letting it go off in any direction that will make the film more dynamic and alive for my friend.

One thing I am definitely not going to do is describe what's on the screen. Your viewers don't need to be told that the woman is wearing a red dress or that the scene is taking place in Paris; they can see all that. But they may be interested in knowing that the dress was worn by Queen Erica on her wedding day and then never worn again after her husband was assassinated a few hours later. And they may look at the Eiffel Tower in a different way if you tell them that each year at least five people leap to their deaths from the top deck.

What I have been suggesting above are the two basic rules of narration: (1) don't describe what can clearly be seen and understood by most people; but (2) do amplify and explain what the picture doesn't show. Apart from these, there are no real rules to writing narration. However, there are quite a number of hints about the process that may help you along the way.

Writing for the ear. The journalist writes for the eye, but when dealing with narration, you are writing for the ear. And there's a world of difference. That generally means your vocabulary has to be simpler and more immediately understandable. For instance, an article in a magazine might read as follows: "They were wed the morning after the raid on the store with the precious stones. The intruders had also sexually violated one of the shop girls." Film narration would put it like this: "They got married the morning after the jewel robbery. The thieves had also raped one of the shop girls."

You can't go back. Another essential difference between text and film writing is that in the latter, you can't go back. Your writing has to be clear and make its impact immediately. This very much affects the order in which you express things. A news article might say, "Rockefeller, Louis B. Mayer, the Queen of England, Alexander the Great, and Rasputin all loved horses." A film script would put it this way: "Rockefeller loved horses. So did Louis B. Mayer, the Queen of England, Alexander the Great, and Rasputin." In the first version, the meaning of the sentence becomes apparent only at the end. In the film version, we know what we are talking about from the start. Of course, if you wanted the commonality of all these people to be a mystery, you could use the first version. But that doesn't happen very often.

Grammar and slang. Your narration may be grammatical and follow the normal rules of writing, but it doesn't necessarily have to be so. Your writing does not stand by itself. It is meant to accompany pictures, and the only important thing is the effect of that final combination.

Most of the time, your writing will, in fact, be relatively standard. You will probably avoid anything too archaic or literary and keep to a simple structure. What do we mean by literary or archaic? You could say, "A million dollars sounds like a lot, but compared to the federal deficit, it is an infinitesimal amount."

The problem is that the expressions "federal deficit" and "infinitesimal amount" may be a little too complex for the film, so a simpler version might be, "A million dollars sounds like a lot, but compared to the government's debt, it's peanuts!"

If we look again at Burke's script on tournaments and knights, we see immediately that he felt absolutely unconstrained about using colloquialisms and slang.

The only answer was a stronger horse that could take all that punishment. And rearing big horses, as anyone who knows will tell you, ain't cheap. . ..

The tournament was a kind of cross between the circus coming to town and a wild free-for-all, where half the time things ended in absolute shambles. .. .

You knocked a guy off his horse at the tournament, and you took everything. . . .

Standard English and fine grammar it ain't. But it certainly works.

Summary and rhetorical questions. I mentioned that unlike the printed page, you can't stop and go back in film. But what you can occasionally do — and it makes for greater clarity—is summarize where you are before moving on to another idea or sequence.

So there were the American soldiers in Stalag Luft Nine. Six hundred of them from all ranks. They had fought the good fight . . . and lost. The question was whether they would simply give up or try to escape. Next morning the German guards found the answer!

As you can see, the statement contains both a summary and a transition to your next moment.

Simple, powerful sentences. Narration seems to work best using short, simple sentences with the main action verb fairly near the beginning. I am not saying that you cannot use more elaborate structures, with multiple ideas and a whole series of dependent clauses, but you have to be much more careful in your writing. Here is what I mean by the simple, strong sentence:

The American troops were young and untried. They came from Texas, from Utah, from Oregon. Few had ever been as far east as Chicago or New York. Now they found themselves five thousand miles from home, ready to invade mainland Europe. It was June fourth. Few knew it, but D-day was only hours away.

Directing attention. When you write, you can make the viewer see anything you want. Although there may be a mass of information on the screen, your words will show the viewer what is significant. But your words do more than direct attention. They are also there to give meaning.

We are doing a film about the American South. Suddenly we see a river, trees, a paddle-wheel steamer, houses in the distance, a few horses moving around. What does it mean? Nothing until we add the commentary.

All was quiet, not even a breeze. Few knew or cared that a young man had been lynched on that tree just a day before.

If you write it that way, all the attention goes to the trees, and the scene takes on an aura of horror.

But you could write it another way:

Once there were steamers by the dozen all along the river. They were painted like rainbows and puffed along like Delilah making a grand entrance. Now only one survives, forgotten, desolate, and soon for the breaker's yard.

If you write it like that, the trees are forgotten while every one looks at the steamer.

Atmosphere. One of the challenges of narration writing is to add an extra dimension to what can be seen on the screen. We are not talking about adding information or facts but about enhancing the mood of the film. We are trying to get inside the scene and bring it to life, so that the viewer is fully involved in the emotional experience of the film. As a writer, you want the audience to feel the joy of the child who learns to walk after years on crutches, to understand the sadness of divorce, the isolation of prison, or the excitement of scuba diving.

One way of doing this is by careful use of the color words, of adjectives, of words that add texture. The words are there to complement the image, and when everything works in harmony, the effect can be tremendous.

In the bitter coldness of the night the jeeps went around collecting their burdens. Husbands said goodbye to wives, sweethearts to lovers. Faces were pale, lips cold, eyes wet. Few words were said as the last jeeps departed into the clinging mists, carrying the men to the darkness of the waiting planes, loaded bombers, and an unknown dawn.

Below are two examples from What Harvest for the Reaper, written by Mort Silverstein. Both show how a judicious use of adjectives can add immensely to the scene. In the first extract, buses are taking black migrant workers north from Arkansas to the work camps of Long Island at the start of the summer.

Their guide for the 1800-mile trip will be crew leader Anderson. His charge is thirty dollars. Since none can afford it, they are in debt to Anderson before the trip begins.

The bus marked "special" will take them away from the indifferent towns of Arkansas, past the county seats of Tennessee into Virginia, then over hundreds of miles of sterile highway that bypass great mountains and heartbreaking sunsets, until ultimately they reach Cutchogue, Long Island.

Earlier in the season Cutchogue was a resort, one of the prides of Long Island. The prim town is resplendent with schools, churches, and old homes. It also has a migrant labor camp.

The writing is simple, concise, but very effective. There aren't in fact many adjectives, but the ones used—indifferent towns, sterile highways, heartbreaking sunsets, and prim town—carry a tremendous punch.

At the end of the film, the workers go back to Arkansas, somehow more deeply in debt than when they started the summer. They have been exploited by their bosses and have nothing to show for their months of sweat and grind. This is how Silverstein deals with leaving the work camp for the last time.

The season which began in the vast darkness of night and soul is now ending the same way.

On the last day this legacy, these odors, these noises, these silences. Three men pack to go home. They have worked for almost six months on the fields of Eden, and are irrevocably mired in debt.

Eight years ago, in a memorable CBS documentary Harvest of Shame, the late Edward R. Murrow urged wage, health, and housing reforms for migrant workers. Eight years later, the migrant condition is still the shame of the nation.

Another interesting element of the above extract is the use of words such as these and today. These words, in conjunction with words such as here and now, add a sense of urgency and immediacy to the film. They can also tie the pictures to the text when there is really very little connection. Let's assume that we've found some rather indifferent pictures of war. One of the shots shows children wandering around doing nothing. The shot says very little to us until we add the words here and these.

Here, in the city, there is silence. The bombing has stopped. But few of these children know what tomorrow will bring. Will the fighting return? Will the slogans be repainted? Will hell reawaken in a different guise? No one knows, but today there is calm after the scream, and the city sleeps.

The particular versus the general. On the whole, particular descriptions work better than generalities. The generalities of narration are soon forgotten, whereas a striking word picture is held in the mind. We are doing a film about banking and have to tell the story of Joseph X. Smith. We don't have much to work with. In fact, all we have on-screen are some fairly dull photographs of Joseph as a young man with a cigar and some equally dull photographs of him around age sixty. One version of his life might go as follows:

He made his fortune with gambling and real estate. Eventually he was worth ten million dollars and opened his first bank. He certainly lived very well and had dozens of women. But the crash of 1929 hit him hard. Eventually, he lost all his money and lived the last days of his life where he'd started out, around the gambling dens of Kansas City.

Written this way, you don't remember much about Joseph Smith. He is a gray character, soon forgotten. But if you particularize the details of his life, everything changes.

He made his first fortune with a ten-dollar bet. He won an oil well that was thought to be dry. It wasn't, and within a year, he owned half the town. Later, he gambled in Europe with King George V, kept four mistresses who all had to wear the same red velvet dress, had his Rolls-Royce painted green . . . but finished up selling matches outside the gambling dens of Kansas City.

It's a bit exaggerated, but you certainly remember the guy.

The power of words. An old saying has it that pictures don't lie. Well, it's not quite true.

Often, pictures take on meaning only when the narration is added, a point we have been making throughout this chapter. This ability to provide meaning to a scene is a tremendous power, and in many cases, you can bend the scene in almost any direction you want.

On-screen we see crowds of young people, yachts, a marina, and a regatta in progress. It's a happy season, with everybody smiling and enjoying the atmosphere. Now let's put some words to it.

They come once a year to celebrate Britain and boating. Soon the yachts will be out, vaunting a pride in old English workmanship.

Today Nelson and Drake would be happy to see that their countrymen still rule the seas.

So for the moment, and rightfully so, work is left aside as the youngsters cheer on the crews and relax in this festival of fun.

Or we could take a more critical tack.

They come once a year to celebrate Britain and boating. But while they drink champagne and eat strawberries, the rest of the country is going to ruin.

Yes, it's nice to talk of Drake and Nelson, but wouldn't it be more appropriate to talk of idle shipyards, silent factories, and men out of work? Yes, let these privileged few vent their hollow cheers, because tomorrow comes the silence and the reckoning!

Narration plus interview. Very rarely do you find a film that is all narration. Most films are a blend of narration, sync interviews, and voice-overs. It is, therefore, worth thinking over carefully how you can best combine all the elements. A good way is to keep the narration very factual and let the voice-overs and sync provide the emotional experience of the film. The episode Morning, in the Thames Television series The World at War, provides a good example on this point. Written by John Williams, the film examines the D-day invasion of France by American, British, and Canadian troops. At the point of the extract, the sea invasion is just about to be launched.

Narrator: Never had the channel waters seen such a mighty force. Heading for France were some six and a half thousand vessels of all types, marshaled and escorted by the Allied navies.

Glider fleets were waiting, wearing their D-day markings. The first division would go in by glider and parachute, dropping behind the invasion beaches. Their losses were expected to be as high as seven out of every ten men.

Kate Summersby (voice-over): They all had their faces blackened because they were going to jump into Nazi-occupied Europe in a very short time, and you kept thinking, "I wonder how many are going to come back?" Later on General Eisenhower said, "You know, Kay, it's very hard to look a soldier in the face knowing you might be sending him to his death."

Narrator: In the last hours of the fifth of June, the airborne troops set out for France.

George Alex (voice-over): Butterflies in your stomach, and you're wondering, "What am I doing here? Why did I volunteer? Am I crazy?" And everything's going through your mind, and you're worried, and you know it's coming up soon. I was afraid. I was nineteen, and I was afraid.

Narrator: Many men were afraid that night. They were storming Hitler's Festung Europa—Fortress Europe.

And across the water the Germans waited, not knowing when or where the blow would fall.

Film Making

Film Making

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