Saturday, December 7, 2019

Cinematic Secrets

Hulu.com has created an ingenious 15-episode series called, “The Story of Film,” and I believe we can learn a great deal about our craft by watching it. The first two episodes reveal how filmmakers stumbled upon film techniques we now take for granted—the close-up, the flashback, depth perspective, etc.—and it’s not difficult to see how we can use the same techniques on paper.

Take the cut shot, for example. The earliest narrative films portrayed each scene from a single point of view, as an audience would see a stage play, but filmmakers soon realized this medium gave them the ability to switch or “cut” instantly from one point of view to another and back again.

An early example was the 1903 film, “A Day in the Life of a Fireman.” It showed a firetruck roaring up to a house afire, the firemen connecting hoses and setting up ladders, then one fireman smashing out a window on the second floor. Moments later, a fire ax breaks through another window on the second floor, the ground crew moves his ladder to that window, and the fireman emerges with an unconscious woman draped over his shoulder. Had this movie followed the stage convention of keeping the audience in the same position with the same point of view, that’s all we would have seen. Instead, the director used a series of cuts to tell the story in sequence:

* A fire truck roars up to a house afire.

* Cut to a woman’s bedroom filled with smoke. The woman struggles to her feet, then falls back on her bed, overcome with smoke.

* Cut to the exterior, where one fireman smashes out a window on the second floor.

* Cut to another smoke-filled bedroom, where the fireman breaks through its window and looks around.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman enters from the right and finds the victim unconscious. He tears down the window drapes and smashes out its window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman’s ax breaks through a second window and his ground crew repositions his ladder there.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman hoists the victim onto his shoulder and exits the window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman clambers down the ladder with the woman over his shoulder.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the smoke sudden thickens and bursts into flame. They’ve escaped just in time!

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman lays the unconscious woman on the grass, shakes her, pours water on her face, and she revives. (What do you expect? It’s 1905. They didn’t know CPR back then.)

Every cut shot is equivalent to the word then: “He did this, then he did that, then he did that,” and so on. A movie audience now accepts this storytelling technique, and virtually every movie made since 1905 has used it.

Here’s another one. A film shows a grocery wagon driver pull up in front of an apartment building, where the deliveryman goes in with a big basket of food.

* Cut to an interior shot, where he begins climbing the first flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where his horse eyes an open sack of feed leaning against the building. The horse draws the cart onto the sidewalk and begins to eat.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the horse really chows down on the open feed sack.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the ravenous horse drags his wagon over the curb, tipping it and spilling several bottles of milk onto the sidewalk.

And so on. In this case, every cut shot is equivalent to the word meanwhile. It’s a far more effective way of telling the story than simply showing a lengthy take of the delivery man climbing many flights of stairs, then showing another lengthy take of the hungry horse and the ruined groceries.

One more. In D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour 1916 epic film, Intolerance, he shows how human prejudice has led to the persecution and death of heroic figures throughout history. He does it with a series of cut shots. He shows how worshipers of two Babylonian gods slaughtered one another, then cuts to Jesus performing miracles with jealous Jewish leaders conspiring against him, then cuts to persecuted Protestants during the Reformation, etc. 

In this case, each cut shot is equivalent to the word, likewise. By juxtaposing these scenes from different periods of history that illustrate the same human tendency to be intolerant of other people, Griffith makes his point. We can do the same, especially in an epic story that spans several generations of the same family.

Such cinematic techniques are powerful ways to convey a message. Thanks to documentaries like “The Story of Film,” we can see how they work and apply them to our own storytelling.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Getting Fit in a Writerly Fashion


My husband regularly runs, swims, and lifts weights. He loves to mix the disciplines, claiming they use different sets of muscles. Apparently, using the same muscles over and over is not efficient in gaining strength and stamina. Something about disrupting muscle memory and causing each muscle to work harder. He tells me he feels so alive after a good run or a workout.

My idea of exercise is a long walk or a Pilates class. No sweating allowed. I’ve been trying out yoga. Sort of. Isn’t my enthusiasm overwhelming?

Now, ask me about mind fitness. I can spend an entire day reading a good book. Time has no meaning when I’m working strategy on board games or filling out crossword puzzles. The satisfaction of finishing the puzzle with not one cross-out (if I can’t use a pen, where’s the challenge?), of winning the game, or of  closing the book with a sweet sigh of, “ahhh,” spells success. The only thing my husband would get out of those exercises is a headache.

Since writing is closely aligned with reading, I’m willing to invest hours of effort to improve in the craft. The hours have added up to years.

At first, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about writing exercises. Author friends made gentle suggestions of books I could read in order to put depth in my stories, but with  my gung-ho attitude in writing full-length fiction I didn’t listen. Friends were likely to hear something along the lines of, “Leave me alone. I’m trying to write a novel here.” My time was limited. I had to get to it. 

If my husband had maintained such an attitude, his first attempt to run a 5K marathon straight out of his armchair would have resulted in a week-long limp, if not a hospital stay!

It took me about a year, but I got tired. Novel-writing was a lot harder than that first glorious Nanowrimo. To restart my engine, I joined ACFW, and thanks to the main loop, I discovered a treasure of blogs and books to study. 

With the encouragement of Brilliant Cut Editing (thank you, Deirdre), I found out writing flash fiction is fun. It’s kind of like those puzzles I love. How can I make a complete story fit into the parameters of a thousand words or seven hundred or one hundred? Like a puppy with a new chew toy, I’ll play with those words until someone insists I leave it alone for a while.

I also joined a local writers group. Wary of criticism, I started small and tried my hand at a short story. The group was encouraging! I tried another short story.

When I returned to my novel, I could see how my skills had improved, so I've continued to practice at home and away. Workshops, conferences, retreats, contests. Flash fiction, short stories, and novel-length fiction, and I seek feedback wherever possible.

I’ve contributed to blogs and have a blog/author website of my own. Penning nonfiction is a refreshing break from fiction, and creating short stories uses a different set of writing muscles from novel structures.

What had my husband told me? A variety of exercises using different muscle groups builds strength and endurance more efficiently. He’s right. And it works for writing, too. As I participate in short story exercises, sensory detail drills, emotional depth practice, even poetry, the end of a good workout leaves me feeling alive and energized.
.
If you haven’t yet begun a regimen of writing workouts in a variety of disciplines, I promise: you won’t be sorry!


Linda Sammaritan writes realistic fiction, mostly for kids ages ten to fourteen. She is currently working on a middle grade trilogy, World Without Sound, based on her own experiences growing up with a deaf sister.
Linda had always figured she’d teach middle-graders until school authorities presented her with a retirement wheelchair at the overripe age of eighty-five. However, God changed those plans when He gave her a growing passion for writing fiction. In May of 2016, she blew goodbye kisses to her students and dedicated her work hours to learning the craft.
A wife, mother of three, grandmother to seven, Linda regales the youngest grandchildren with “Nona Stories,” tales of her childhood. Maybe one day those stories will be in picture books!
Where Linda can be found on the web:



Saturday, November 2, 2019

"He Entered His Novel"


In a masterful article on Notre Dame Cathedral, Ken Follett shares an account from Victor Hugo’s wife about how that French poet began work on an epic novel about the cathedral in 1830. “He bought himself a bottle of ink and a huge gray knitted shawl, which covered him from head to foot,” Mme. Hugo recalled. Then he “locked away his formal clothes, so that he would not be tempted to go out, and entered his novel as if it were a prison.”

Hugo finished his 180,000-word masterwork four and a half months later. Publishers of the English edition gave it the title we know today: The Huchback of Notre Dame.

I’m struck by her statement that Hugo “entered his novel as if it were a prison.” I believe she saw something more than an obsessive work habit, though he certainly had that. (Let’s see, if he wrote 180,000 words in 20 weeks, that was 9,000 per week or about 1,400 per day. Every day. Seven days a week. Without a computer or even a typewriter. We might call that the “hard labor” typical of prison.)

But I sense something more in her comment. By cutting himself off from social engagements, Hugo immersed himself in the book he was writing. He took up residence in its world and would not leave until its story was fully told. Such single-minded devotion produces great literature. It also produces the best Christian fiction, regardless of its genre or length.

How about it? Have you entered your novel as if it were a prison?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Go Down Swinging: That’s a “Well-Done”


In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus gave the illustration of three servants who were given money to invest. Two of them earned good returns. With the World Series coming up, you could say the first servant hit a home run and the second had an RBI double.

“Well done,” said their master/manager.

The third servant in the parable was scared to make a wrong move so he made sure he didn’t lose the money. You could say he refused to swing the bat, hoping for a walk, and was called out on strikes. The coach was not happy.

I’ve always wished Jesus had introduced a fourth servant. What about a guy who invests the money and loses it? He swings with all his might but strikes out. Does the master say, “Poorly done, good and faithful servant?”



I’ve been mulling that one over. Maybe Jesus didn’t include the servant who tries and fails because He’ll make sure there is a return of some sort on our investment. Maybe He congratulates us on the fact that we gathered the courage to act. Maybe he’s telling us that if we make the effort to step out in faith and use our talents for Him, our willingness to serve contributes to eternal victories.

God gives us all kinds of abilities, and He wants us to use them for His glory. Those of us in ACFW were born to communicate through story. We may never sell a blockbuster novel, but we pour words into our stories and blogs, striving to honor Jesus.

Some agents and editors will love our work. Some won’t. Our readers let us know what they like and what they don’t.

When readers tell me how I’ve encouraged them, that’s like a “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 
By faith, I invest time and labor in my God-given talent to write. He is the one who makes my writing profitable—for someone. I step up to the plate, swing the bat, and I either…

·         Hit a home run with a blockbuster novel,
·         Or sacrifice fly for an RBI as I review and praise others’ books,
·         Or strike out--swinging--with a flop, according to my critics.

Jesus sees every word I write for Him. I do it for His glory. If the world doesn’t buy it, that’s okay. As long as it’s for His glory it’s “well done.”



Linda Sammaritan writes realistic fiction, mostly for kids ages ten to fourteen. She is currently working on a middle grade trilogy, World Without Sound, based on her own experiences growing up with a deaf sister.
Linda had always figured she’d teach middle-graders until school authorities presented her with a retirement wheelchair at the overripe age of eighty-five. However, God changed those plans when He gave her a growing passion for writing fiction. In May of 2016, she blew goodbye kisses to her students and dedicated her work hours to learning the craft.
A wife, mother of three, grandmother to seven, Linda regales the youngest grandchildren with “Nona Stories,” tales of her childhood. Maybe one day those stories will be in picture books!
Where Linda can be found on the web: