Filmmaking fascinates me in part because all creative processes do, but also because film’s collaboration forces its makers to explain their decisions to others. This can be a handicap because to succeed the various participants have to get on the same page. But it can also be an advantage because there are others present to at least theoretically contribute to creativity and question errors in judgment.
I’ve wondered, as a writer who performs alone the tasks that many people perform in a film production, what insights the dialogue of making films could teach. For example, what does the back-and-forth between film actor and director suggest about how specifically I should make my characters in early drafts?
Today, for no other reason desperation, I started experimenting with drafting my novel in somewhat the way a film production operates. Routinely, I never draft chronologically, but I have generated the setting of my scenes as I’ve written them. Same, again for the most part, with the way my characters look in terms of physical stature, dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc. In other words, I came up with the setting and costumes at the same time that I put the character in them.
This morning, I flipped that. In film production, the construction of the world the characters will inhabit and in which the story will take place precedes the filming of the story. The locations, the set design and decoration, the props, the costumes, even the hair designs, are planned and in place before the actors show up. Partly because I tend to struggle with plot and I didn’t know which events to take up next in my drafting, I began to design and draft the settings for my story. I made a preliminary list of some of those settings: places where the main characters live, bars and restaurants they frequent, an important music club, workplaces of some of the main characters, and landscapes in which some key scenes occur.
Two things happened:
First, I realized that I don’t need to know exactly what’s going to happen in the setting in order to create it, any more than I need to know exactly what’s going to happen at the restaurant or grocery story I decide to visit on my way home. All I have to do is show up—or provide a character—with an intention. A scene happens when some obstacle to achieving the intention emerges, either from the setting itself or from another character with a contrary goal. Of course, in the conflict that ensues, I may discover that a few different details will make the scene work better. But for the purposes of drafting, I only need the place and the people. They make the plot happen.
Second, almost immediately I feel more confident about generating the plot and subplots. The cast of supporting characters has begun to expand as the specifics of each setting emerge, and the qualities of each place—which ones which characters will find familiar and which ones certain characters will find alien or threatening—are already suggesting the shape and even outcome of what might happen. Of course, it helps that I have a good sense of the main characters, and a general sense of the overall shape of the story. But as I worked today, I became much more comfortable with not having more than that.
But most importantly, I feel very differently about the entire process. The idea of creating the world of the story ahead of having the story spelled out in detail, which I have always liked but which really hit home when I listened to this podcast a few weeks ago, has suddenly burst on me with an unexpected energy. I’ve never written stories “from the outside in” because for me the “outside” was plot and I preferred to start with the characters. But now I find the “outside” to be much richer than I had ever imagined. I’m excited about working on the costume design for the characters—what they would wear in different season, situations, in formal or casual settings—and I’m learning about what these characters value and even how they move and occupy space.
This has implications not only for fiction but for something like memoir, biography, history, or even social science writing. How would it help me clarify what I want to say if I spent time early in my process delving into the settings? What would the landscape and clothes signal to me and to the reader about what’s most significant? How can this enrich the way I see what I’m after in a piece?
I don’t yet know, but I’m eager to find out.