During the 40+ years of my career in the storytelling business I have worked in motion pictures (film, TV and video), theater (legitimate and corporate), and novels. Each has its own distinctive formats, rules, advantages and disadvantages, but at the core of them all is the art of spinning a well crafted yarn.
Oddly enough, the occupation that taught me the most about storytelling was film editing. Sound baffling? Maybe not if you consider that many of our finest movie makers started out as film editors: David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Robert Wise (West Side Story), and John Sturges (The Great Escape), to name just a few.
A film editor artfully weaves together myriad snippets of picture and sound into a smooth, compelling story. The finished product may bear little resemblance to the original script. Scenes are shortened, rearranged, or dropped altogether. New scenes are added. Dialogue passages are cut in favor of music. Narrative thrust and rhythm become the order of the day until finally the film pours smoothly onto the screen.
The film editor has the advantage of seeing instantly the fruits of his/her labor in real time. If the flow is not there, frames are snipped, a different take may be substituted, and so on until the story emerges and comes to life. The work is no longer just an assembly of scenes, it’s a movie.
How did that benefit me as a writer? After years of film editing I developed a narrative mindset that I’ve never been able to shake and it is, naturally, very visual. When I’m at my computer writing, I don’t think of it as a computer, I think of it as a Moviola (the standard film editing machine for decades). As I compose a scene, I imagine it playing on the screen.
Do I have the right angle? Is the blocking natural? Am I moving the characters around for maximum effectiveness and appeal? Is the dialogue crisp and distinct for each character? Is the pacing right? Is the emotional level where it should be? If the answer to any of these is no, I’ve got work to do.
When the first cut of a film is completed, other people are brought in to give their evaluation. They have the advantage of seeing it with a fresh eye, whereas the editor by now is pretty jaded and has lost a lot of his/her objectivity. This, of course, is true of writing too. It’s the point when we bring in completely objective people we trust to go through and ‘red pencil’ our manuscripts. At this point the two crafts have merged. Only the journey getting there is different.
You may say, okay, I see the parallel, but a film editor doesn’t have to create characters and plot lines; that’s already been done by others. Not necessarily so. Most of the films I worked on as an editor were documentaries. Quite often there is only a rudimentary script at best, sometimes nothing more than a mission statement. A camera crew is sent out and an enormous amount of film is shot, then dumped in the editor’s lap and told: “There’s a story in there somewhere. Find it.”
Example: I was hired to edit a film about snow skiing. My client was a skiing enthusiast and a very good cinematographer. He had shot thousands of feet of spectacular runs and jumps down powdery slopes in Utah – all in super slow motion. I nodded off watching the footage. Beautiful but boring. Then came random shots of people getting their skis on, doing practice runs, falling and laughing, partying, interacting with each – families, lovers, kids, even dogs. My client thought of it as ‘throw away’ footage. To me it was the gold. Here’s where the energy was. Here’s where the story was. I only used the best of the slo-mo shots sparingly to punch up the narrative thrust. I concentrated on creating a story about the exhilaration of people tackling the slopes. The resulting film was a huge hit with the audience it was intended for, the world wide community of snow skiing enthusiasts.
Thousands of little snippets of film arranged in an unintended and unexpected way to tell the best story possible.
It’s analogous to a writer having thousands of words dumped onto his/her desk and being told to make a book out of them. A film editor has thousands of strips of film hanging in a lighted bin so that at a glance the unique content of the scene can be discerned. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hold up words to the light so that their unique content could be observed, or shake them so we can hear their sound? Then all we’d have to do is shuffle them around, try out different combinations, throw out weak or dull ones, add vibrant ones, until they begin to flow together naturally and a story emerges. They’re no longer just an assembly of words, they’re a book.
So maybe writing a book and editing a film are not that different after all. It’s all about storytelling.